Goodwill programs help veterans transition into workforce

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Jerry Jones spent 16 years maintaining multimillion-dollar equipment at U.S. Air Force bases around the world.

When an injury pushed him into a medical retirement, he picked up a couple college degrees and parlayed them into a career as a juvenile justice officer.

Yet despite his combination of military and civilian work experience, Mr. Jones had little left to support him and his wife when they moved to Austin, Texas, this year. They were living out of their car while fruitlessly searching for work.

"I went to Goodwill to get clothes, and I saw the sign about job opportunities on the door," he said in an interview at the Goodwill Industries of Central Texas headquarters. "So I walked in, signed up and they gave me an appointment for orientation. That's how I got started."

What followed were three months of intensive workforce training and support services through a pilot program called Operation: GoodJobs, one of a collection of emerging new programs designed to help veterans transition into and navigate their way through the civilian workforce.

Mr. Jones now has a full-time job as an officer with G4S, one of the country's leading security firms. He and his wife have settled into an apartment and he spends his off days volunteering for a ministry program that seeks to meet the practical needs of people in the community.

"If I want to teach somebody how to fish," he said, "I'd better be fishing."

Fueled by the return of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan and a deeper public understanding of their plight, a wider range of employment initiatives for a greater number of veterans has sprouted up around the country.

"There's probably more going on now than I've seen," said Shawn Deabay, director of veteran employment services at the Texas Veterans Commission.

"I've been in veteran employment going on 14 years now, and it's certainly more active than it was 14 years ago," he said.

Yet for all the renewed attention paid to veterans' workforce issues, many of the same challenges still hinder a transition from the military to the civilian workplace. The different military and workplace cultures, the difficulty of translating military skills into civilian credentials, and the lack of a coordinated strategy to move veterans into jobs have left many struggling to find good jobs.

When Mr. Jones signed up for the Operation: GoodJobs program, he was paired with Maria Morrow, a trained career navigator and a Navy veteran. Their shared experience of military service helped put them on the same page.

"She kind of spoke my language," Mr. Jones said. "She understood where I was coming from and what I wanted."

Translating military job skills into a civilian workplace environment can prove more difficult. Training courses in the armed forces, while extensive, rarely mesh directly with the college and other certification curricula needed to secure many types of jobs.

At Austin Community College, Stephen Keltgen, an Air Force veteran, spends his time researching the hundreds of military training programs and identifying how those programs align with the college's curricula.

"It's easy if I have a transcript in front of me for every career field the branch of the military has," he said. "But we identified 77 jobs between the four branches of the service for our electronics equivalency tables alone. And that's only a small percentage of the hundreds or thousands of jobs the military has."

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