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Workplaces reach out to vets

| Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

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, Jones had little left to support him and his wife when they moved to Austin, Texas, earlier 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 a recent 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.

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 in Round Rock, Texas, 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.”

Veterans Day arrives each year replete with stories like Jones', and those tales often fade from the public consciousness soon after. Yet veterans' services and workforce officials say they've seen a broader, more persistent surge in workforce initiatives for former service members.

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.”

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.

Public and private-sector officials say the stream of service members entering the workforce in recent years has heightened the pressure on what has too often been a leaky pipeline from the military to the workplace.

The national jobless rate is higher than 10 percent for veterans who served in the military after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, according to BLS data cited by the Texas Workforce Commission.

Even setting aside issues of physical and emotional health, veterans often struggle with the differences in language and culture in a civilian workplace or college setting.

“Say a military service member just gets out of military and you ask them to do a resume, and they hand it to you and it's filled with acronyms,” Deabay said. “Then to have a hiring manager look at it, they don't know what half those things mean.”

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

“She kind of spoke my language,” Jones said. “She understood where I was coming from and what I wanted. She didn't try to BS me.”

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.

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