Sgt. 1st Class Steve Wance won’t miss a beat when he leaves the Army this month after 20 years of service. The Lacey father of three is finishing a program at Joint Base Lewis-McChord that promises him a job at more than $27 an hour as an apprentice in a local union.
“I’m going to be at the local,” getting paid to advance in a new career in heating, ventilation and air conditioning, he said.
He’s taking advantage of one of several programs at Lewis-McChord meant to ease transitions to civilian life for troops leaving the Armed Forces in a time of military downsizing. About 8,200 service members expect to separate from the military at Lewis-McChord this year, and many likely will stay in the area.
The base is ahead of the curve in nurturing transition programs, senior officers say. More than 90 percent of service members participate in some sort of career or education training before they separate from the military.
“You are a perfect example of what we need to be doing,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., told Wance’s class in a visit to the base Wednesday.
Murray wanted to check on the programs this week to follow up on legislation she wrote in 2011 that compelled the Pentagon to improve transition services. It offers earlier career counseling, helps veterans apply for federal jobs while they’re still in uniform and provides money for veterans enrolled in job-training programs.
At the time President Barack Obama signed her so-called Veterans Opportunity to Work Act, recent veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan were facing double-digit unemployment rates that significantly outpaced civilian joblessness.
That gap has narrowed. In March, veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan saw an unemployment rate of 9.9 percent, about two percentage points higher than the overall U.S. unemployment rate, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
That can partly be explained by the country’s slowly improving economy as well as by efforts on- and off-base to connect separating and retiring service members with civilian work.
Veteran job fairs are common around the Puget Sound. On base, the Army and Air Force ask service members to start thinking about what they want to do about 18 months before they’re scheduled to either re-enlist or separate from the military.
If they choose to leave, the base offers them one of four transition paths: general career building, higher education, apprenticeships or courses on how to build small businesses.
In some cases, the Army and Air Force allow service members to spend their last few months in uniform attending job-training and apprenticeship courses.
“We want you to be as successful out of uniform as you were in uniform,” Lewis-McChord commander Col. Charles Hodges said.
Some apprentice programs are so attractive to employers and unions that businesses are working to make new partnerships at the base. It already has apprenticeships for software engineers, construction, welding and the HVAC program Wance is pursuing.
The welding program graduated 14 apprentices in May. The HVAC program has 10 students right now.
The variety helps service members find the right fit as not everyone with GI Bill benefits wants to work on a bachelor’s degree.
Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Tiemeier “wanted something manual” after spending 20 years in uniform mostly leading soldiers as a noncommissioned officer. He did not get a good feel from his first career counseling sessions.
“When we started doing the résumé writing and how to apply for a federal job (class), that was harder than anything else,” he said.
Tiemeier, 37, found the right place in the HVAC program. He’s expected to graduate this month, and he has a job waiting for him in his home state of Ohio as soon as he picks up his certificate.