Volunteer helps veterans network for jobs
Bill Loeber isn’t quite sure what possessed him, but four years ago at a town hall meeting he challenged a local congressman to do more for out-of-work veterans. To his surprise, the politician turned the question around and asked Loeber what he was willing to do to help.
Loeber didn’t hesitate. Since 2013, the retired Hewlett-Packard executive has volunteered more than 500 hours teaching free job-hunting and networking workshops to nearly 300 San Diego County veterans transitioning to the civilian working world. His efforts with the North San Diego Business Chamber’s Operation Connect program have earned him numerous honors, including the chamber’s 2017 Volunteer of the Year Award and the San Diego Military Advisory Council’s 2016 Nancy Dix Civilian Individual Achievement Award.
Chamber President and CEO Debra Rosen said Loeber’s selfless efforts have yielded concrete results. She knows of nearly 100 North County veterans who have found good jobs after attending Operation Connect workshops.
“Bill is so smart and he’s lived networking and looking for jobs,” Rosen said. “He teaches from a very interactive standpoint and engages the veterans. He doesn’t speak at them, he talks with them. He lives it, he feels it and he’s passionate about it. He’s a good guy.”
Loeber, 66, isn’t a veteran himself. He trained as an engineer at the University of Minnesota and spent most of his career in marketing, including 26 years with H-P. Many years ago when his children were young, he lost his job and it had a profound impact on his life and self-esteem — a feeling he wouldn’t wish on anyone.
“It freaked me out,” he said. “I thought, there has to be a system to help people find work. Most people aren’t good at networking, so I thought that if I could ever teach people how to network, they wouldn’t fear it and they’d find work a lot sooner.”
For many years, he kept this idea on a back burner as he pursued his own career. During the recession, when thousands of laid-off people were struggling to find work in San Diego, he decided to put his engineering degree to good use.
“I’m an engineer and I was always fascinated with how stuff works,” he said. “When it came to finding jobs, I was going to figure out a way to systemize the process.”
After six months of research, he came up with his step-by-step program, a PowerPoint presentation that he nicknamed “Networking for Introverts.” Challenged by Rep. Scott Peters, D-San Diego, at that 2013 town hall meeting, Loeber launched Operation Hand Up. Over the next two years, he used his slideshow to teach an eight-week program to more than 100 veterans. Their feedback was positive, but Loeber said he struggled to find students for the free program.
Then in 2015, he met Rosen and Patricia Reily, who is the veteran services director at Cal State San Marcos. The women had been working together with chamber staff to develop their own transition program for North County veterans called Operation Connect, but they had no curriculum and no trainer. It would become a win-win relationship. They could supply the veterans, and Loeber could supply his program and teach the classes at no cost.
“Bill is very modest about his contributions,” said Reily, a retired Navy commander, “but he’s very altruistic. What’s in it for him other than being a good guy and wanting to do something wonderful?”
Loeber, who moved to San Diego in 1980, said he’s always had a deep respect for the military and he credits his parents with instilling the need to help others.
“It’s all about helping these magnificent veterans. I love these people,” he said. “My parents impressed on me that it’s important to do the right thing, especially for people who may not be able to help themselves. This is the right thing to do.”
Reily said most of the veterans who arrive at Cal State San Marcos to study on the GI Bill need to find work to cover their household expenses, but they’re not trained in how to pursue it. They don’t understand how to describe their job skills in civilian terms, their resumes are filled with military jargon and acronyms and most have never held a civilian job.
“It’s like two cities on opposite sides of a river. They’re on one side in the military world and they can see the people on the other side, but they don’t know how that society works,” Reily said. “There’s a misconception that all they have to do is write a good resume, send it out and wait for the phone calls to come in. It just doesn’t work that way.”
As its name implies, Operation Connect is about widening the veteran’s “circle of influence” and leveraging personal contacts to make job connections. Veterans accepted into Operation Connect first attend a one-day, 8-hour workshop at the chamber’s office in Rancho Bernardo. That’s where Loeber and Reily teach them about job-hunting, resume-writing and networking.
The chamber provides the veterans with a free, six-month membership, which entitles them to attend monthly networking meetings and free mentorship by a chamber member in their preferred field. Loeber trains the mentors and he attends all the monthly meetings to help the veterans make business connections.
Rosen said a recent survey found that more than half of Operation Connect’s 190 graduates have found meaningful jobs. Loeber recalls a Navy vet named Jason who spent a year trying to land an interview at General Atomics with no success. After the tutorial in networking, Jason called a fellow alumnus from Annapolis who’d worked there, and that friend helped him get an interview at the San Diego company almost immediately.
Operation Connect is available to honorably discharged veterans who are within two years of transition or are still a student on the GI Bill. The classes, for up to 18 students, are held every month or two. The August class will be held on base at Camp Pendleton. Registration details are available online at sdbusinesschamber.com/operation-connect/.
Loeber is taking a brief break from networking this month to get married. He and his fiancee, Suzanne Mack, will tie the knot on July 14 at the Navy’s bayfront Admiral Kidd Club in Point Loma. In lieu of wedding gifts, the couple has asked friends to contribute instead to a scholarship fund they’re establishing for disabled veterans at Cal State San Marcos (gofundme.com/wedding-helps-disabled-vets/).
Reily said the scholarship will be a great support for the university’s student veterans, a third of whom have service-related disabilities of 30 percent or more.
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