Serving those who served

By: Autumn Bellan

After completing a 22-year career in the military and Marine Corps in 2013, Erik Orient, director, Military Affairs and Student Initiatives, UPMC Health Plan Center for Social Impact, found himself trying to find his fit in the corporate workplace. Eight years later, he met a former Marine who worked for UPMC in project management — the catalyst that began Erik’s civilian career and UPMC’s journey to assembling the Pathways for Veterans team.

“I started with Quality Improvement at UPMC Health Plan, later moving to the Project Management Office,” said Erik. “I learned about the Pathways to Work Program, which aims to help those with barriers to work find meaningful and purposeful employment as part of the UPMC Center of Social Impact.” In October 2021, the UPMC Pathways for Veterans program launched with the goal of increasing veteran hiring by providing a personalized approach to the UPMC job search and application process.

Erik Orient

“UPMC is a large company that can be hard to navigate even for the most well-prepared people,” said Erik. “We try to take a big process and make it small.”

The program, housed within the UPMC Health Plan Center for Social Impact, supports all business functions and geographic areas within UPMC’s footprint.

“To their credit, UPMC’s executives recognized that supporting veteran and military initiatives was the right thing to do.” Erik explored how UPMC could become a leader in the military and veteran space.

Today, UPMC offers a variety of programs, initiatives, and hiring events designed to recognize the unique skills and values veterans offer.

The SkillBridge Program: UPMC Takes the Lead in Pennsylvania

SkillBridge is a Department of Defense program that allows service members to complete an internship with a civilian company during the last 180 days of their active-duty contract. UPMC is the largest SkillBridge provider in Pennsylvania.

“Since the launch of the SkillBridge program at UPMC in October 2022, we have placed 38 veterans in internships,” said Erik. “All military services have key values like honor, courage, and commitment, so veterans immediately identify with UPMC’s values. They thrive working within a purpose-driven system.”

Doug Ickes, manager, Military and Veteran Recruiting, came to UPMC through the SkillBridge program after 20 years in the Air Force as a dental lab technician.

“Erik brought me onto the Pathways for Veterans team as an intern for 12 weeks,” said Doug. “He understood what I was going through as I learned how a civilian job functions. His leadership went a long way.”

Doug Ickes

Shortly after, Doug was offered a full-time position on the Pathways for Veterans team in a role created for him. “I manage the SkillBridge program, working with candidates as they complete their intake survey, interview, and internships,” said Doug. He understands how a veteran’s first post-military opportunity can be a daunting decision, so he tries to pass down his experiences and wisdom and help veterans feel at ease during the process.

Aligning Your Skills

“Most hiring managers look for a candidate with strong leadership who can drive toward mission accomplishment,” said Erik. “Veterans have those skills in spades, alongside a strong work ethic, accountability, and drive.”

As a military police officer for eight years, Kyle Grabowski, project manager, Office of HR Organizational Performance, regularly used interpersonal communication and leadership skills.

“In the military, I learned to treat everyone with dignity and respect regardless of the situation,” he said. “The army puts everyone in a melting pot from day one, so I learned to adjust my approach according to each person. You have to shake off any predetermined notions and embrace different backgrounds and cultures.”

Kyle brings a fresh, objective perspective to his team today, but he did not always know how his skills would fit in a corporate space. “Many of the accolades and acronyms did not translate in the civilian world,” said Kyle. “Erik helped me put my skills in corporate speak so people could understand what I had done.” When attempting to enter the civilian workforce, many veterans face the challenge of translating complicated military terms into understandable achievements and experiences that align with what employers look for.

“Erik was the first person I spoke to at UPMC. During my internship, Erik was my mentor, my boss, and my friend.” said Kyle. “I’m lucky UPMC allows veterans to get their foot in the door. If I didn’t have Erik in my corner or the SkillBridge program to help me market my skills, I don’t know where I would be today.”

Now, Kyle is finishing his MBA with the hope to never stay stagnant and grow within UPMC.

Finding Camaraderie

Samantha Poindexter, administrator, Corporate Compliance, was a lawyer in Virginia before joining the Air Force as a Judge Advocate General (JAG officer) in 2019.

“Coming from a world that is touted as the picture of camaraderie, I wasn’t expecting to find so much of it at UPMC,” said Samantha. “I had always wanted to serve, so my military experience defined me. I was naïve to how stark the transition back to civilian life would be. No one is telling you what to do, what to wear.”

In hopes of taking advantage of the grace period SkillBridge provides, Samantha connected with Erik, who found departments that matched Samantha’s interest in compliance. Together, they were able to make a case for creating an internship position in Corporate Compliance and Ethics that would allow her to pursue this as a potential career path.

Samantha Poindexter

“On my first day, my boss told me our department was located on the 41st floor of the U.S. Steel Tower, and I remember panicking in the elevator,” she said. “It sounds silly, coming from the Air Force, but I had spent four years in buildings only one or two stories high.”

Now, that moment is one of her favorite memories.

“I can look out the 41st floor window and see how far I have come, thanks to the mentorship of those around me,” Samantha said. “I’m so grateful for my team now. My super-visors never let me forget that I still bring skills that translate to our field despite my unique background.”

Take the Leap: The Importance of SkillBridge

According to Erik, 87% of service members who participate in the internship program at UPMC move on to full-time positions.

“We expect to bring 50 SkillBridge interns to UPMC this year, keeping pace with Fortune 100 companies,” said Erik. “UPMC is knocking it out of the park. The feedback we get from hiring managers is exceptional.”

Alycia Conway, critical incident investigator I, UPMC Health Plan CHC Quality Improvement, has seen firsthand how important SkillBridge is for veterans who transition to civilian careers. Alycia enlisted in the military right after her high school graduation and became a medic, working in family health after boot camp.

Toward the latter half of her 8-year military career, she began to pursue leadership roles. As she led a team of five departments comprised of 20 people, Alycia realized she enjoyed helping patients from behind the scenes.

This past year, Alycia decided to focus on her education and her family, starting a SkillBridge internship with CHC Quality Improvement. “I am thankful for the time I had to breathe and figure out what I wanted with the support of UPMC, as I began to move on from the military lifestyle,” she said.

“Don’t be afraid to take the leap,” said Alycia, on advice she would give to other veterans looking to transition to a new career. “UPMC is incredibly veteran-friendly.”

Career Fairs and a Concierge

Each month, 300 to 400 veterans apply to UPMC. They each receive a personalized outreach from Doug or Erik, asking what assistance they can provide with their job search.

“We can’t provide the answer key, but we can help them understand the system,” said Erik. “We have found that veterans who use our services are 3.5 times more likely to get in front of a hiring manager and two times more likely to be hired.”

As Samuel Cunningham, project coordinator, Community HealthChoices, UPMC Health Plan, stood in the center of Acrisure Stadium at a Pathways for Veterans career fair, he gazed up at U.S. Steel Tower, the UPMC sign like a mark of hope. After retiring from 22 years as an active-duty Marine in 2021, Sam had a handful of jobs that were not the right fit.

Samuel Cunningham

“Life in the Marines is a roller coaster,” said Sam. “You move every few years, leave your family. After 9/11, I had long deployments. My last duty station was in Hawaii for four years.”

To be close to family, Sam, his wife, and two children packed their car, shipped it to Los Angeles, and drove across the country to Pittsburgh.

Sam met Erik, who encouraged Sam to attend the career fair, where he met staff from across UPMC who had come from the military. “They tell you to come as you are, and they tailor the experience to everyone’s needs,” said Sam.

At this year’s career fair, Sam hopes to be the greeter. “I want to meet everyone,” he said, joking about his natural charm, “and help someone like they helped me.”

After seven months at UPMC, Sam still learns something new every day.“I hope I never stop learning,” he said. “I found a home at UPMC, so I plan to be here for the rest of my career.”

Expanding the Footprint With Veteran Care Services

“We are constantly looking to do more and expand throughout the entire UPMC footprint,” said Erik. “My goal is for UPMC to be recognized as a national leader in military and veteran engagement.”

He also strives to support local organizations and initiatives in the military community that go beyond employment, speaking highly of Marc Migala, director, Veterans Health Care Services, and what UPMC in Central Pa. has achieved.

“Our UPMC Veteran Care Services team does direct care coordination for any veteran referred out of a Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center into UPMC in Central Pa. We serve as a concierge and one-stop-shop to go between the veteran, veteran care services, and the VA,” said Marc, who himself is an Army veteran. “Everything we do is free as a thank you for their service.”

Marc Migala

The team strives to meet all of a veteran’s needs through referrals available in cardiology, rheumatology, general imaging, labs, and more complex care services, like transplants. “It is remarkably important that every single veteran be afforded the opportunity for streamlined Life Changing Medicine,” said Marc.

The Veterans Care Services team has embedded community nurse liaisons at the seven hospitals in UPMC in Central Pa. who look at all veterans who enter emergency departments or are inpatients to identify those who need to be connected to VA benefits.

Since the advent of UPMC Veteran Care Services in 2021, the team has assisted more than 10,000 veterans, working with many VA Medical Centers in the region. “In the future, I would love for every UPMC facility to have some form of Veteran Care Services supporting their teams,” said Marc.

Saying Thank You

UPMC thanks all the veterans and military service members for their service, whether they are the staff, families, friends, or community members that make our organization and regions a better place.

“I’m proud to be a part of an organization that supports veterans,” said Erik. “What could be better than helping my community achieve what they define as success?”

“After a long career in the military, I was concerned I would not find that sense of belonging, camaraderie, and shared values anywhere,” said Doug. “I found a home at UPMC thanks to their willingness to take a chance on me. Now, it is a gift to help other veterans as they walk in the same path as I did.”