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Jobs for veterans ranks high

By Shannon Clinton

Regional employers hear firsthand from soldiers at Fort Knox. Where Opportunity Knox hosts quarterly tours at Fort Knox as part of their employer outreach, and more than 130 employers participate in the program currently.
Regional employers hear firsthand from soldiers at Fort Knox. Where Opportunity Knox hosts quarterly tours at Fort Knox as part of their employer outreach, and more than 130 employers participate in the program currently.

Each year, an estimated 130,000 U.S. soldiers transition from active duty service, and of those, more than 3,000 are from Fort Knox, according to Where Opportunity Knox, an organization designed to help match transitioning veterans and their spouses with employers in the 26-county Greater Louisville region.

Exiting soldiers enter into civilian life through the Department of Defense Army Transition Assistance Program (TAP), based at Fort Knox’s U.S. Army Human Resources Command. TAP provides job search assistance and counseling services for soldiers and their family members.

But civilian employment challenges can loom large for these veterans. A 2015 Department of Veterans Affairs Veteran Economic Opportunity Report found that nationwide “in recent years about half of all service members transitioning into civilian life have faced a period of unemployment within 15 months of separation.” While the opportunity report found 95 percent of veterans will find employment before using their allotted 26 weeks of unemployment benefits, the average unemployment used had risen to 22 weeks in 2013 compared to an average 18 weeks in the previous six years.

As an additional resource to pair veterans with jobs, WOK launched in September 2014. Regional veteran connectors provide free, personalized assistance using veterans’ and spouses’ talents and job and relocation preferences to help them find jobs, especially with one of WOK’s more than 100 participating employers in the region.

In addition to serving Fort Knox area veterans, WOK representatives visit Fort Campbell monthly to assist veterans in that part of the state, said WOK Executive Director Beth Avey.

“We especially developed this with the small to medium businesses in mind, which don’t have the resources necessarily of a larger company – but really we have companies of all sizes,” Avey said.

WOK is an initiative of the Kentucky Indiana Exchange, which along with area workforce investment boards performed an initial market study to develop the model for the program. It is funded by The Ogle Foundation Inc., Duke Energy, The Gheens Foundation Inc. and the James Graham Brown Foundation.

‘Passionate about the veteran workforce’

Second-quarter data is still being compiled, but Avey said 1,036 veterans were hired with the help of WOK from the program’s fall 2014 launch through the first quarter of 2015. The goal by the end of 2015 is to achieve a total 2,500 veteran hires in a variety of fields, including information technology, manufacturing, healthcare and law enforcement, among other sectors. A longer-term goal is to connect 10,000 veterans by 2017.

In addition to WOK, a number of other military and community-based organizations are helping put veterans to work in the state. The Kentucky Jobs for Veterans Program has a presence in 10 regions throughout the commonwealth and is open to veterans of all military branches plus the Kentucky National Guard. Through Kentucky Career Centers, this program provides training, skills assessment and job search assistance, with specialized services for disabled veterans.

The Kentucky Society for Human Resource Management is also working with Kentucky Career Centers to help encourage employers to hire veteran workers. Kentucky SHRM Workforce Readiness Director Sherry Powers said for the past eight years her organization’s members have been encouraged to post all open job positions with the career centers and participate in periodic veteran job fairs the KCC sponsors.

“Honesty, perseverance and strong work ethic are the benefits our vets bring to our information systems and support careers,” Powers said. “Diversity, harassment and leadership are just a few of the areas (in which) each has already been trained.”

The society also hosts resume, interviewing and networking workshops that can also help veterans during their job searches.

In mid-May this year, U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Bob McDonald announced the launching of the Veterans Economic Communities Initiative in 50 cities that were chosen based on veteran population, projected future increases in this population and veteran unemployment rates. Louisville was selected along with cities like New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta and San Diego among the first 25 locales to participate.

In each community, VA Economic Liaisons are tasked with encouraging public and private collaboration toward veterans’ education, training and employment opportunities. The program’s website says selected communities will conduct employment summits for veterans and employers with “immediate hiring needs,” and create policy academies to help brainstorm ideas and shape policies to increase veterans’ employment opportunities. The cities also will create plans to enhance veterans’ entrepreneurial and other skills.

Farming’s next generation?

The agricultural sector also is looking to reap the benefits of transitioning veterans looking for work. As the average age of farmers nationwide nears 60 years of age, younger farmers are needed to replace them, and that’s where the Kentucky Department of Agriculture is stepping in.

“We see our military veterans and current service members leading the next generation of American farmers,” said Ben Shaffar, director of business development for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s Office of Marketing.

Similar to the Kentucky Proud branding effort that spotlights produce and products originating in the commonwealth, the Homegrown By Heroes program launched in early 2013 offers additional branding visibility with a distinctive logo for food that’s been veteran grown or raised.

With the help of the nonprofit Farmer Veteran Coalition, the HBH program has now expanded to about 90 members in more than 40 states, Shaffar said, providing a marketing boost to both longtime farmers who have veteran status and veterans who are new to farming.

“We’ve had tremendous demand from retailers, restaurants and the like who want to support the products being grown and raised by our military veteran farmers” in their venues, Shaffer said.

The goal is to have all states’ departments of agriculture or farm bureaus to support the program by 2017, with the hope that the U.S. Department of Agriculture will soon help HBH become the official marketing brand for farmer veterans.

The Kentucky Department of Agriculture also has partnered with Radcliff-based USA Cares; the Kentucky Proud Jobs for Vets program matches veterans needing jobs with farmers needing seasonal workers and provides an online application to connect farmers and veterans.

Since its founding in 2003, Radcliff-based USA Cares has developed a multifaceted approach to assisting post 9/11 veterans with emergency, housing, combat-injured and job-assistance programs, Director of Assistance Programs Angela Suarez said.

The job-assistance program began five years ago and especially helps veterans with financial barriers that may hamper them in successfully obtaining post-military employment. Assistance can include help with travel costs to a job interview, daycare expenses, relocation expenses or transitional funds to help veterans pay their household expenses until their first paycheck arrives, Suarez said.

For veterans who land jobs that require them to furnish their own tools, an expense that can cost thousands of dollars, USA Cares has a grant partnership with MSC Tool Supply to provide them. Private and corporate donations fund the job assistance program.

The benefits of hiring veterans are many. Veterans are known as loyal employees, and often have the technical and soft skills that employers are looking for, Suarez said.

“They have that education, that experience, that dedication to the company and what they do, and they’re very good at working under high pressure and have leadership skills as well,” she said.

Avey said WOK also serves as an ambassador for the Greater Louisville area, encouraging veterans to launch a new chapter of their civilian lives here.

“It’s about the quality of place and the quality of life that this region offers because we know that’s equally important to military families – so they can find a place that’s supportive of them,” she said.