Tech Sector Salutes Transitioning Veterans
On a recent morning, some two dozen service members at Joint Base Lewis-McChord started in on their intensive training exercises -- only instead of exercises to train them for combat, they were taking classes leading to high-tech civilian work.
The group participated in a pilot program sponsored by Microsoft and other partners in which servicemembers -- while still on active duty -- undergo 16 weeks of intensive training, at the end of which they will receive certification helpful to get high-tech jobs.
They also are guaranteed interviews with Microsoft for entry-level, software-testing positions.
And, at least for this pilot class, the graduates are also guaranteed jobs -- either at Microsoft or through Launch Consulting, a Bellevue-based, veteran-owned tech consulting firm administering the program.
The Microsoft Software & Systems Academy, as the program is called, is one of several efforts started in recent years to help service members move more seamlessly into the civilian job market.
It's a need some say will grow more vital as the drawdown of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan continues.
Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) estimates it will discharge about 8,000 of its active-duty servicemembers each year for the next three years, with about 40 percent of those people staying in Washington state.
That's up from the 6,000 discharged by the base in 2012.
About 273,000 people nationally separated from military service in fiscal 2012, according to the Department of Defense.
"Translating the military skills into the civilian sector is not very straightforward," said Tim Bomke, education-services specialist with the David L. Stone Education Center at JBLM. "Sometimes the military jobs don't have a direct counterpart.
"We're trying to get them to think broader," Bomke said of both servicemembers and those in charge of hiring at various organizations.
Staff Sgt. Adam Critterbart, who had served as a sniper and communications specialist with the U.S. Army Special Forces, was one of those who was thinking broader.
Earlier this year, before he left for a tour of duty in Afghanistan, he found out that he and his girlfriend (now fiancee) were expecting a baby.
"The last two deployments, as a single guy, you're not thinking long-term repercussions of being at war," Critterbart said. "This time, every time you cross a bridge, you think: 'This is a bad spot to be in.' I thought of her every time."
He also realized he wanted to be home to experience his baby's milestones, and to be with his family more than the three months he was home last year.
Given his Special Forces training in communications, he had some experience in computer networking and thought he would try to get into that after leaving the Army.
But he wasn't sure how long the job hunt would take and whether he would be able to support his family in the meantime.
Now, he's taking part in the Microsoft Software & Systems Academy, taking classes taught by instructors from Saint Martin's University, and taking advantage of networking opportunities with Microsoft mentors.
"A program like this appearing at this time is the best thing that could've happened for my family," Critterbart said.
"Here I was one moment, crossing my fingers to get into networking. And then there I was, getting offered 16 weeks of training while still receiving paychecks, while most people are still searching for a job," he said. "I hope there's a lot more servicemembers that are afforded this type of opportunity."
Spc. Lahai Josiah, who served as an intelligence analyst for the Army and is also in the Microsoft program, calls himself "a half nerd."
He welcomed the opportunity to train for a job in technology, something he's long had an interest in.
"I did think learning code would be slightly easier," he said. "But it's like learning a new language."
Other companies, such as Cisco Systems and Starbucks, have recently started initiatives to train or hire veterans.
Earlier this year, Cisco, along with other partners, took part in a White House effort designed to match servicemembers transitioning out of the military with in-demand information-technology jobs.
The pilot program for that initiative, which took place at JBLM, trained about 17 servicemembers, at the end of which they received certification for the IT jobs.
Starbucks announced this month it would hire at least 10,000 veterans and active-duty spouses over the next five years, and would give part of the proceeds from one of its coffee shops near JBLM to a Goodwill program that helps veterans with post-military job searches.
JBLM has also partnered with other organizations to help servicemembers shift into the civilian workforce.
Recently, the nonprofit Hire America's Heroes launched a pilot project at JBLM in which corporate recruiters identified openings at their companies, and assistance -- such as career coaching -- was provided to servicemembers who might qualify for interviews to fill those positions.
The government has also stepped up its efforts to help servicemembers make the transition.
The VOW to Hire Heroes Act pushed by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and signed into law in 2011, for instance, requires more transition activities for service members before they leave the military, while also providing tax incentives for companies that hire veterans.
Washington state earlier this year became the first state to form a military transition council to bring together federal, state and local agencies, as well as private companies and nonprofits, to try to improve transition services to those leaving the military.
The 6.9 percent unemployment rate for veterans in October was actually lower than the 7.3 percent national average.
That was higher, though, than the 6.3 percent veterans unemployment rate a year ago. And the unemployment rate for those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan is 10 percent -- the same as a year ago, said Mark Ballesteros, a spokesman with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
"While veteran unemployment rates have shown a general downward trend in recent years, there is still much more work to do," he said. "President Obama and (Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric) Shinseki have both made clear that for returning veterans, those who have left their families and risked their lives for this country, the last thing they should have to do is fight for a job when they come home."
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