Veterans Out of the Service -- and a Job
Army veteran Joshua Wofford served two missions in Iraq -- one lasting nine months and another for six.
His hunt for a Jacksonville job took almost as long as a combat tour.
Florida -- home to more veterans than any state but California and Texas -- had a 9.3 percent unemployment rate among veterans in 2011.
Georgia, the sixth-most populous state for veterans, had an unemployment rate of 8.9 percent for them. Both states fared worse than the national unemployment rate of 8.3 percent for veterans.
Against those odds, Wofford sought assistance at the Jacksonville-based Wounded Warrior Project's office. During that visit, he happened to meet the local human resources director of BAE Systems, a global company whose Jacksonville operation helped found the Jacksonville Military Veterans Coalition.
About six months later, BAE gave him an internship as a painter at its Jacksonville shipyards, and then promoted him to a full-time position. Wofford, 38, calls it a case of a veterans network giving him a helping hand.
"The people I've met who seemed to help the most have also been veterans," Wofford said. "There's a bond."
Coalition organizers say that's the kind of transition to employment they want to replicate across Northeast Florida.
"We're not making the case that you should hire veterans out of charity," said Mike Fleming, managing director of Deutsche Bank Jacksonville. "We're making the case that you can have a better business by hiring veterans."
Fleming is a veteran himself. He retired from the Florida National Guard as a brigadier general and then moved into the corporate world for Deutsche Bank.
After Deutsche Bank, which is a global company, joined other large banks to form Veterans on Wall Street in 2010, Fleming decided Northeast Florida needed a similar organization.
Work started in 2011 and resulted in this month's launch of the Jobs for Vets program that provides job-hunting assistance for veterans on the city of Jacksonville's web site.
Jacksonville's history as a Navy town means it has a high concentration of veterans with a corresponding demand for employment assistance. WorkSource, the state-supported agency that matches job-seekers with employers, helped 10,700 veterans in the 2011 fiscal year.
WorkSource spokesman Candace Moody said employers favorably view applicants coming from the military because their skills and teamwork translate well to civilian work. The 9.3 percent unemployment rate for Florida veterans in 2011 was still slightly better than the 9.5 percent jobless rate for the state's non-veterans, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Unemployment initially hit harder for soldiers serving in the Florida National Guard. A survey in January 2011 found 17 percent of soldiers in the state's guard were out of work, which was worse than the 11.9 percent unemployment rate for all Floridians at that time.
That rate has since fallen to 9.5 percent, according to the Guard's surveys. That is close to the overall 9 percent rate for the state.
Other states have experienced the same dire straits for members of the Guard, said Ted Daywalt, president of VetJobs, a Marietta, Ga., organization that operates an online job board for veterans.
Daywalt, a Navy veteran who has testified before congressional committees about the unemployment facing members of the National Guard, said it stems from the longer deployments of brigades that started in 2007. Even though employers want to hire Guard members, the deployment schedule makes it difficult if not impossible, he said.
"The unemployment rate shot up because employers cannot run their businesses with employees being taken away 12 and 24 months at a time," he said. "They want to hire military, but they can't go broke doing it."
Florida lawmakers considered creating a $10,000 tax credit for businesses that hire National Guard members who are coming back from deployment abroad or have been out of work for at least six months. But the budget constraints forced the removal of that tax credit form a bigger bill aimed at supporting the military.
Still, the Florida National Guard says it has made headway in finding jobs for members of the guard. Last fall, the guard hired a statewide program coordinator to help take advantage of existing job search services.
"I think we've moved in the right direction," said Sgt. 1st Class Blair Heusdens of the Florida National Guard's public affairs office.
About 12,000 soldiers and airmen serve in the Florida National Guard. For both soldiers and airmen, the unemployment rate for the guard is 7.9 percent. Airmen have fared much better than soldiers on the employment front.
Fleming said the Jobs for Vets program will be a place to seek work from businesses that want to employ veterans. Forty-seven companies have signed up so far. Fleming said he hopes Jobs for Vets can grow to a few hundred businesses by showing them the value of hiring people with military backgrounds.
"We're trying to educate on both sides," he said, "and connect in the middle."