In November, I went to Fayetteville to the offices of NCWorks, the state agency that helps folks find jobs. The event was a roundtable. Army veterans talked about making the transition from the military to civilian careers. Moderating was Gov. Roy Cooper, who was joined by Commerce Secretary Machelle Baker Sanders and retired Marine Lt. Gen. Walter Gaskin, secretary of military and veterans affairs.
The topic was what the state can do to help veterans and get them to stay here. This year, an estimated 21,300 service members will leave our bases – Fort Liberty, Camp Lejeune, Seymour Johnson Air Force Base and the Coast Guard – and become civilians. At a time when employers struggle to find workers and colleges struggle with enrollments, this is a prime group to recruit. We already are home to nearly 700,000 veterans and their families, the ninth-largest veteran population in the U.S., and nearly 200,000 are under 50.
The job of folks who run transition assistance programs at the bases is to get the service members prepared for wherever they go, whether it is North Carolina or Iowa.
Anxiety and stress
Jeff Craver, director of the Military & Family Readiness Center at Seymour Johnson, has been on both sides of the process. He retired as a command chief master sergeant
after 30 years.
“Everyone at some point is going to part ways with one of the service components. And you’re only going to do it once. And nobody knows how to do it. They all know how to raise their right hand and enlist. But when it comes to separating and moving forward, then that’s where there’s a lot of fear, and an awful lot of uncertainty, and an awful lot of anxiety, and an awful lot of stress. And that’s where our team kind of comes in and helps them navigate through that journey.”
Bill McMillan, transition services manager at Fort Liberty, has worked with service members for more than 30 years. “Prior to 2011,” says McMillan, “we were mostly just basically teaching them how to do resume writing, how to do job search, helping them with the VA claims where possible.”
That changed around a decade ago. One reason was that the military was paying a lot in veterans unemployment benefits.
In 2011, when the economy was tanking, the Army paid out more than $500 million.
Congress pushed the Department of Defense to improve transition programs. The process now begins a year before separation and requires one-on-one counseling. There are sessions on benefits, educational opportunities, entrepreneurship, financial planning and employment in civilian life. There’s a “crosswalk” session to identify jobs that correspond with military jobs.
Last year, the Army paid out $21 million for unemployment benefits.
But there’s more going on.
McMillan described a career skills program that lets soldiers nearing separation work for companies while drawing military pay. An agreement with Pfizer’s plant in Sanford enables some veterans to start at jobs paying $80,000 or more annually, after internships of two or three months, he says.
BMW has a facility at Fort Liberty that trains soldiers on their cars. “As soon as they graduate the course and clear the installation, they go straight to work at a BMW dealership,” says McMillan.
“Service members will go where the jobs are. If a state does not really market that they have opportunities, then there’s not a reason, necessarily, for a service member to stay there.”
The military has job fairs on installations. There’s no shortage of for-profit and nonprofit organizations trying to connect veterans with jobs. But practically speaking, given their Monday to Friday work schedules, active-duty service members are challenged to get a full picture of job opportunities. On weekends, many businesses are closed.
“We try to get out and find out what these companies have to offer,” says McMillan. “And then we try to bring the company into the installation.”
One effective program is the DOD’s SkillBridge, a military-wide program that lets transitioning service members work their last six months for an employer, while receiving military pay. So far around 50,000 service members have gone through it, with 3,300 employers. There’s no guarantee of an offer; it is a low-risk deal on both sides.
It has been popular at Camp Lejeune, where nearly 200 service members a month are approved, says Sherry Anthony, who runs the program there. “It’s blowing up.” The program got so popular that the Pentagon briefly stopped accepting new employers last summer.
Tyler Klemas, a Duke Energy lead operational excellence specialist, praises SkillBridge. Klemas served as an infantryman in the Marine Corps, in Afghanistan and Iraq. “We encourage people to email us once they get to eight months to a year from getting out. The last year or so, I think we’ve brought in four or five people via SkillBridge and saw all of them all the way through, and ultimately hired them.”
He urges employers to send veterans to military and veteran job fairs. “Send me, the guy with no degree, covered in tattoos. Because at the end of the day, they’re going to gravitate toward people who know the lingo, who know the talk, who know the life.”
In the last few months, I talked with veterans, companies and transition personnel to learn more about the journey. Tarsha Burroughs, a training lead at Novo Nordisk in Clayton, was in an Army chemical decontamination unit in Baghdad when she was wounded in a mortar attack. She got out in 2007. Today, she’s trying to encourage more veterans to consider Novo, where 7% of its North Carolina employees are veterans.
Joanna DeMott is CEO of Green Zone Corporate Training, which helps companies recruit veterans and their spouses. The wife of a retired Marine, DeMott has worked for the Marines as a civilian program manager and for UNC Wilmington in military affairs.
The service member can’t just shed a military identity in one day, she notes. “It’s not like you have your last day of service and then you’re like, ‘Yep, I’m a veteran. I want to take advantage of all these benefits,” she says. “That’s why there’s also sometimes that gap. That shift in identity doesn’t always happen right away. We shouldn’t be reliant upon the service member to own the culture shift on their own. We have to meet them halfway.”
The food truck
The November discussion with the governor included veteran Justin Cloud. In a later interview, he mentioned that he was rolling out his new food truck. In fact, he was a few blocks away from Fort Liberty, where he was going to cook wings, in front of the a military surplus store.
Cloud got out of the service in 2004, and discovered a passion for cooking, and was doing that on the West Coast but came back to Fayetteville and family. He got connected with a veterans employment representative at NCWorks. That rep, Tremayne Gilchrist, “pretty much was either calling or emailing me every day, or every other day, to let me know some things that were available,” says Cloud. “They gave me enthusiasm.”
I was driving to a job fair in nearby Hope Mills sponsored by NC4ME – one of the state’s leading veterans employment groups. I stopped by Cloud’s truck, because this was an example of what everyone – the state government, hundreds of nonprofits, and the military – wants to happen: an entrepreneurial veteran staying here and starting up something. ■