Boots to Business gave master sergeant fresh start

After 17 years in the U.S. Air Force, Steven Matzeder was looking to settle into civilian life.

The transition was slightly daunting for the experienced and decorated Air Force master sergeant. Matzeder began his military career as a kitchen shift leader at Shreiver Air Force Base in Colorado before moving on to special programs, helping on-base families as the noncommissioned officer in charge of services, plans and programs for Royal Air Force Mildenhall in the United Kingdom. He then worked in the Air Force executive dining facility at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., among other distinguished positions. He had built quite the resume during his military career.

But a question lingered: Would all this experience in the military give him a leg up in the business world, or would it hinder him in his search for gainful employment?

“When I was transitioning out of the military, I got a lot of literature on how to do that,” Matzeder said. “I knew I had a lot to offer.”

As he was going through the standard out process, he was given help on his post-military career resume.

“I had been with hospitality the better part of my adult life,” he said. “I hoped to stay with that.”

That was one of the main reasons he received a call from the local chapter of the American Red Cross about a new program, Boots to Business. The program pairs veterans returning to the civilian workforce with training opportunities that use their natural leadership skills as new assistant managers and managers. After completing the program, the veterans eventually will be hired by MGM Resorts International for one of the company’s many properties.

“It was great to be able to come into a company, on a manger’s level,” Matzeder said. “And they acknowledge that we had tools and resources from the military.”

He had lived in Las Vegas for three years, and to be able to start with a company as strong as MGM meant something to him.

“Before I had even gotten out of the military, they were a company I was highly interested in,” Matzeder said of MGM.

In the first Boots to Business class in 2012, Matzeder was the only one with a hospitality background. He was joined by a civil engineer and a military linguist among other military specialists with varying backgrounds.

“They wanted to branch out and MGM saw that,” he said. “The way that they were able to mold our group in to a very manageable group with viable skills was impressive.”

Eleven U.S. veterans have graduated from the program and have begun their new careers with MGM Resorts. The 10-week program begins with Michael Ryan, Red Cross Service to Armed Forces special project manager. He reworks incoming veterans’ resumes, preps them for their interviews and weeds out candidates for the Boots to Business program.

Once the veterans are hired by MGM Resorts, they then enter multiple training programs, including the American Red Cross Reconnection Workshops sponsored by Wal-Mart. These workshops focus on creating positive reconnections among family members and enabling the successful reintegration of service members into civilian life. The Red Cross and MGM Resorts firmly believe that success at home mirrors success at work.

The first three weeks of Boots to Business are held in a classroom setting. From there the veterans move to on-the-job training in various MGM departments.

“I hit the jackpot in that MGM Grand and (Red Cross) were very helpful in my acclimating, to transitioning back to the community,” Matzeder said. “The military, more than anything else, is a job and every job has a way of doing things. But the military is not just a job so much as a culture, and it’s easy to say that it’s also a lifestyle. It’s everything.”

Leaving that behind can be difficult, sometimes in ways that can cause strife for the veteran either at work, home or both.

“It’s the little things you may not see until they pop their head up,” Matzeder said. “Sometimes we can get too hands-on when we need to step back (in a work environment). It’s definitely a change, a different way of being. It can be a little bit awkward.”

One main reason Boots to Business works is its hands-on support system.

“You are coming in as part of a group so you have a built up support system,” Matzeder said. “The one thing we miss (in civilian life) is the fraternity we have in the military. With Boots to Business, the other managers go through the same things you do. It’s the principles of teamwork, and it makes for a much easier transition.”

Within one year of employment with MGM working in-room dining and other areas, Matzeder launched the hotel’s new café.

“(Boots to Business) has helped me grow as a person,” he said. “It’s definitely unique.”

The program began quietly when Scott Emerson, chief executive officer at American Red Cross, and Michelle DiTondo, senior vice president of human resources at MGM Resorts International, put their heads together at a Red Cross Southern Nevada Chapter meeting with MGM Resorts in early 2012.

As an HR specialist, DiTondo saw veterans struggling to find employment and realized the Red Cross just may have the tools that, combined with MGM’s efforts, could make a serious difference.

“They were in a board meeting together and Michelle was part of the Red Cross board and she passed a note to Scott saying we need to get vets hired and he said yes,” Red Cross veteran specialist Ryan said. “That’s how Boots to Business was born.”

The first class was that July. The program is now in four other states, including Springfield, Mass.; Biloxi, Miss.; Prince George County, Md.; and Detroit.

“We all have worked hard and it has mushroomed into something positive in the regional locations,” Ryan said.

MGM has already hired several veterans in those areas.

Suzanne Burke, service to armed forces director for the American Red Cross Southern Nevada Chapter, was brought on to assist. A veteran herself, she served more than 20 years in the Air Force before joining the civilian workforce.

“When Scott told me about it, I was all in,” said Burke, whose husband is coming out of the military after 23 years himself. “You do have to acclimatize to civilian life from a super structure that is the military. It’s quite a culture shock.”

Veterans she’s worked with at the Red Cross often don’t realize their resume, while solid, doesn’t translate to the civilian world.

“Some resumes we receive are so heavy on the military side that it’s hard to decipher (for civilian employers),” she said. “The acronyms alone can make it hard to read. So we help them talk about how their skills convert over so they can get hired.”

Veterans who are found eligible for the Boots to Business program start out at one of the Red Cross workshops, which include how to communicate clearly, identify depression, explore stress and trauma, relating to children and working through anger.

“We provide them with interview skills and help them through any distress they may have from their time in the military as well as the mechanics of working through the civilian work world,” Burke said. “We look at the whole person, not just the fact that they need a job.”

The expanded program is evidence of the Boots to Business quick success for veterans.

“We are building something special for the veteran and their loved ones to help them transition into meaningful work and I think that is important,” Ryan said. “We teach them to use the skills they already have to be impactful at work and at home.”

The reconnection workshops are offered around the country by Red Cross chapters.

“What makes this different here is that the local chapter looked at the tools we had within our city and we were able to co-create this program with the tools we have and identify this group of veterans and help them,” said Lloyd Ziel, public information officer for the Red Cross Southern Nevada Chapter. “And it has been such a success the first time through that we can really decide to have forward motion to go into other markets.”

It’s also a boon to MGM Resorts, which at any one time has 1,100 jobs available due to regular turnover and expanded positions, said Michelle DiTondo

“We are the largest employer in Nevada and we partner with the Red Cross; it just made a lot of sense,” DiTondo, who comes from a military family, said.

After much review, Emerson and DiTondo took their proposal to Jim Murren, chairman and CEO of MGM Resorts International, and Gail McGovern, the head of the National Red Cross.

“Gail was going to be in town, so to push it along, we arranged a meeting with Gail and Jim and pitched them our idea,” she said. “They were both immediately supportive.”

They started with a $25,000 grant and have watched as the team members who come out of the program are some of their best employees, regardless of their background.

“We are not looking for experience; we are looking for attitude,” DiTondo said. “It’s about team work, discipline, leadership and all the things that the military teaches them. We can teach you how to manage in food and beverage, room service, that’s not a problem. We need good leaders. The military gives a foundation for that. It’s not about the background, but the ability to learn and to adapt.”

MGM mentors and managers spend a year teaching the Boots to Business recruits the ins and outs of the company.

“We address the whole employee; we are not just giving them a job,” DiTondo said. “The Red Cross gives them transition workshops, so they go through company leadership training and once a week they go through a transition workshop with the Red Cross that teaches them about family finances, re-establishing family relationships, all the personal things you need to transition out of the military.

“If we don’t address the issues, it’s what can get them fired from a company. It can be isolating, and if we don’t address that then they won’t be successful. It’s very complete, going from personal to professional, and that’s what makes us unique.”

Classes currently have just under a dozen students, a number DiTondo hopes to double in the coming years, and each student receives a mentor.

“We have so many (MGM managers) signing up to be a mentor, each of them had two mentors in the first class,” DiTondo said.

The Boots to Business program is also unique in that it assists with higher-ranked military looking for employment.

“We have a lot of colonels, and a colonel isn’t right for an entry-level training job,” DiTondo said. “Boots to Business is targeted to entry-level managers, but we sent the colonels on through. When Michael (Ryan) screens them we know they may be right for the job.”

Within a year of inception, the Boots to Business model has made a significant impact on the veterans as well as MGM Resorts.

“After the first program, Jim (Murren) was so impressed with the quality of people we were getting,” she said. “And then Gail (asked if) MGM would support (the program) nationally.”

MGM Resorts made a donation of $250,000 to the Red Cross so that they could extend the program well beyond Las Vegas.

“We’re really proud of the program and we’ve had great success from it,” DiTonto said. “We’re finding employees that are really good at what they do. There’s a high level of loyalty for taking a chance on them.”