New programs help military make transition to civilian life

New programs help military make transition to civilian life
A veteran participates in a practice interview as part of the Veterans Association of North County’s new Career Transition Assistance Program, which provides free job training for veterans and their families. Courtesy photo

COAST CITIES — Mary Jane Fisher and her husband Steve have more than 30 years of military service between them. 

Mary Jane left the Navy in 1992 and Steve left the Marines in 1995; they’ve each worked in several job fields after departing from the military. Now they’re looking for new careers in a tough job market. They were initially overwhelmed by how much the job hunt has changed.

“It’s a totally different environment out there,” said Steve, who has worked in the security industry and the car sales industry, among the other experiences listed on his resume. “Before I would walk through the doors of a company and ask for a application. These days it’s all about having a polished resume, websites like LinkedIn, job fairs and networking with as many people as possible.”

San Diego is home to the largest veteran population in the nation. And the number of veterans is projected to increase over the next decade as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drawdown. In response, several San Diego nonprofits and businesses have sprung up in the last year to help transitioning military members and long-time veterans find jobs.

Since completing the Veterans Association of North County’s new CTAP (Career Transition Assistance Program) Mary Jane said she and her husband feel more confident searching for jobs.

“We have self-discipline and a lot of great skills,” Mary Jane said, who has experience as a real estate agent. “We learned how to market ourselves and put our best foot forward.”

CTAP offers free classes to help veterans and separating military members — as well as their spouses and children — find employment. The three-hour long classes take place twice a week for nearly two months.

Volunteers with business and human resources backgrounds across San Diego coach the classes, which are funded primarily by a grant from the Armed Forces Interest Group of the Rancho Santa Fe Association, as well as donations from businesses. Veterans participate in mock interviews and resume critiques. And volunteers give the veterans career advice.

“The career assessment is very important,” said Janis Whitaker, CTAP’s program manager. “A lot of younger military just got out of the service and have no idea what they want to do. We want them to have direction.”

Whitaker said many veterans leave the military with skills employers find desirable. But many veterans often aren’t sure how to translate their experience into a jargon-free resume tailored to the private sector. Adding to the challenge, self-promotion can seem counterintuitive for veterans because “military are taught not to brag,” she said.

Ideally, Whitaker said military members would start “the reverse boot camp” months before leaving the service.

The unemployment rate for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in San Diego is 11.5 percent, and it’s 27 percent for 18 to 24 year old veterans.

Statistics showing high rates of youth veteran unemployment prompted two San Diegans to create Returning Patriots.

According to Dan Ward, Returning Patriots’ executive director, the nonprofit has partnered with companies to train separating military members for specialized jobs in industries like information technology.

“We saw there’s a demand in IT software quality assurance,” Ward said. “These were jobs that were getting outsourced before.”

Ward said Returning Patriots, which began late last year and recently celebrated its first graduating class, is looking to work with companies in other fields to offer additional training programs.

Kevin Denny, the executive director of the nonprofit Center for Veteran Work Force Development, said he’s also motivated by high youth unemployment, as well as veteran incarceration and suicide rates. Denny’s program will launch in San Diego this September.

“It’s a crying shame,” Denny said. “These are kids who served our country.”

His nonprofit’s solution for veterans and active duty military: Focus on finding heavy-duty jobs in industries with aging-work forces like logistics, transportation and construction. To fill a void left by retirees, he said there’s an increasing demand for young workers in the technical trades.

“These are areas where there’s lots of retirement and the country just doesn’t train younger people to fill them,” Denny said.

“It’s hard for veterans at first to adjust to civilian life,” he added. “But military are the most hard working and capable people out there.”

On the for-profit front, Vets Pro in San Diego connects active duty military and veterans with certification programs and jobs in the oil and transportation industries. Julie Magnuson, a managing partner with Vets Pro, said these industries are often recession-proof, and some military members already have training as diesel mechanics, for example.

According to Magnuson, the nomadic nature of much of the military population can often make it difficult for potential employers to stay in touch with them after they apply for a job. Despite initial difficulties, she said hiring military is more than worth it in the long term.

“Hiring military is not only the right thing to do, it greatly benefits companies,” Magnuson said.

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