Hospital CIO leads effort to train veterans for IT jobs

Jaime Parent is the Associate CIO and vice president of IT operations for Rush University Medical Center, a 688-bed hospital in Chicago. But the real reason he gets out of the bed in the morning is The Rush Center for Veterans and Their Families.

The Center is Parent's brainchild, an idea developed in response to a need he saw among a growing disabled veteran population - veterans who struggled to reintegrate into civilian life and find not just a job, but a fulfilling career, Parent says.

The goal of the Center is to facilitate both mental and physical health as well as foster employment success for veterans who may feel the skills they learned in the military don't translate to civilian employment, Parent says.

Jaime Parent combined his current experience as an IT executive with his past experience as an Air Force colonel to create The Rush Center for Veterans and Their Families. (Photo courtesy of Rush University Medical Center)

So many veterans go back to the military, to deployments, over and over because the transition back to civilian life is so difficult, Parent says. "There's a feeling echoed by many that they're not 'useful' in a civilian context; that their platoons and companies and their brothers-in-arms relied on them but, now, they aren't needed. They feel like they're not contributing in any way, and this is one way we can help them," he says.

"We have four veterans already on board, even though the Center doesn't open for another few months. I can't wait that long, and neither can these veterans." -Jaime Parent, Associate CIO and Vice President of IT Operations, Rush University Medical Center

"I'm an Air Force veteran myself, and I spent some time at Walter Reed [National Military Medical Center], and I can't tell you the number of young veterans, in their mid-20s who were struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), or physically disabled, in a wheelchair. And they felt they had no long-term job prospects, no way forward," Parent says. "I starting thinking that, despite the recession, IT and healthcare were still 'hot' areas that could use an influx of well-qualified, highly trained folks like these veterans," he says.

Finding the Right Tech Job

While the 3,000 square foot Center won't officially open until February 2014, Parent is already working with some veterans on a smaller-scale version of how the employment program will function.

"We have four veterans already on board, even though the Center doesn't open for another few months. I can't wait that long, and neither can these veterans," he says.

When considering a job description, Parent says he looked for well-paying, in-demand IT skills that were easy to learn and to train for, that also offered flexibility. The jobs also would be temporary, in that once trainees mastered IT skills, they would begin searching for IT employment elsewhere, leaving room for new veterans to take their place.

"We wanted something entry-level that would be appealing to these veterans, would let them work part-time up to 32 hours per week at $12.50 an hour but would give them greater opportunities," Parent says.

"We don't want them to get locked into this situation, but we want it to be a structured, on-the-job learning program from which they could go onto better things," he says. The answer was right under his nose.

Rush University Medical Center is currently in the middle of implementing a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) solution, Parent said, and that technology refresh is the perfect opportunity for veterans like the ones the Center will serve, Parent says.

"Right now we're in the middle of a VDI implementation, and we're refreshing 200 systems per month. Over 36 months, that would be 8,000 to 9,000 units, which is very sustainable. I can have vets come in to do this, and even those with only rudimentary skills can learn how to swap these systems out and then, depending on their interests and to some extent, their disabilities, they can graduate to higher-skilled positions within the department and eventually, elsewhere," he says.

This aspect of the program is the hardest to impart, even to the veterans themselves, Parent says. While multinational companies like Wal-Mart are pledging to offer jobs to returning veterans, the lasting benefits of programs like those aren't obvious.

"Wal-Mart's going to hire 50,000 veterans, they say. That's great; doing what? Being cashiers? Greeters? For these veterans, the positions we're talking about aren't about productivity, or how much they can produce. It's about learning and mastering multiple skills so that within sixteen months they are competitive in the IT marketplace and can go start a career somewhere else," Parent says.

"I tell them again and again, 'As much as I love seeing you come in the door, I'm going to love it more when you leave. Because that means the system is working, it is reproducible, it is sustainable, and any healthcare organization can implement the framework of this program," Parent says.

Emphasizing the Family's Role

The Center will employ a psychiatry expert, a number of psychiatrists and psychologists, along with administrative staff to support both veterans and their families, Parent said, which is a component sometimes overlooked by traditional programs aimed at veterans' employment.

"We have a large VA presence in the Chicago, and we're not trying to compete with them, but to exist as a complement to them; another resource and a support solution," he says. "One thing we know is that veterans get better as their families' needs are met. Outcomes can improve by as much as 30% to 40%, and so we'll try and look at a 'whole person, whole family' approach to treatment and employment assistance," he says. In some cases, Parent says, that approach may mean hiring not the veteran, but their spouse.

One particular veteran Parent mentions is so severely afflicted with PTSD that he's unable to commute, making finding and keeping a job nearly impossible. In situations like his, the Center's focus on veterans' families is crucial and can make a huge difference in quality of life, Parent says.

The Center will be funded through grant money and private gifts, and also benefits from the donations of IT vendor partners that have come on board to offer online training programs, job placement, and other valuable goods and services, Parent says.

Cisco, for example, is offering online CCNA training; Microsoft will offer training for its MCSE certification. Both Hitachi and NetApp will deliver online storage certification training, too, he says, all in the name of helping to make veterans competitive in the current IT jobs marketplace.

Overcoming the Recruiting Challenge

While in theory the idea behind the Center is solid, in practice, one of the greatest challenges will be identifying and recruiting veterans to participate, Parent says. A similar program pioneered at University of Massachusetts (UMass) opened with the expectation that veterans would be "pounding on the doors" for acceptance, but that didn't happen, Parent says.

Most veterans aren't aware that programs such as this exist, and above and beyond that, Parent says, there's a social stigma attached to asking for help from such programs. So, Parent says, the Rush University Center for Veterans and their Families will have to do a substantial amount of outreach and education to make sure the veteran population knows about the Center, he says.

"To overcome these roadblocks, outreach is going to be huge. It'll be like doing new business development; we'll have to partner with the medical professionals and the mental health and social work professionals already working with these veterans and help get the word out," Parent says.

"The lesson we took from the program at UMass is that you can't just 'build it and they will come,' you have to work within the existing infrastructure, and gently push these guys toward services and programs that can help them," he says.

For all the challenges, Parent finds hope and purpose within the Center for Veterans and Their Families program. He says that military veterans often already possess skills to succeed in business, they just need a little extra help translating those skills into the civilian world.

"Military and ex-military families have character, loyalty and dedication. They are hard-working, committed, and dedicated all they need are some additional skills and training," he says. "Helping this population through the Center is my 'happy place.' My purpose is to get the word out and get exposure, so that soon what we've started will take hold at other hospitals and other centers start to think about this," he says.

Sharon Florentine covers IT careers and data center topics for CIO.com. Follow Sharon on Twitter @MyShar0na. Email her at sflorentine@cio.com. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.

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This story, "Hospital CIO leads effort to train veterans for IT jobs" was originally published by CIO.

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