Ryan Knight had a lot to figure out last May as he prepared to leave the Air Force, and he had little time do it.
The senior master sergeant was set to retire July 3 after 19 years in uniform. With three kids, he didn’t want a gap in paychecks. But he had only a vague idea of what he wanted to do next.
“I haven’t felt this kind of anxiety in years,” admitted Knight, a 39-year-old veteran of nine deployments, including seven to Iraq and Afghanistan.
He took an early retirement, ending his service a little before he’d planned.
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Like Knight, thousands of military service members at Joint Base Lewis-McChord are facing major career decisions as the Army and Air Force slash tens of thousands of positions across the services in a postwar drawdown.
The good news this Labor Day weekend is that troops are coming out of the military with some helpful tailwinds for the first time in years. A rising economy has reduced the veteran unemployment rate, and several new programs are matching troops with jobs in the civilian sector.
In the Puget Sound area, companies including Amazon, Starbucks and Microsoft have stepped up veteran recruitment projects.
“The iron is hot now,” said JBLM base Commander Col. Charles Hodges. “We are starting to link up veterans with employers.”
He rattled off a litany of first-in-the military transition programs launched at JBLM that guarantee troops work in the private sector as computer programmers, pipe fitters and in other trades.
But gaps remain in the network that aims to connect Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with civilian work.
Young veterans in particular still struggle. The unemployment rate for veterans younger than the age of 24 stood at a disturbingly high 24 percent last year, 8 percentage points higher than civilians in the same age group.
Veterans from the two recent wars had a 9 percent unemployment rate, higher than the 2013 national average of 7.2 percent.
And the military’s panoply of transition programs, which lead service members to college or new trades, have yet to forge a consistent path for troops like Knight. These are the veterans who know they want to work immediately after leaving the Armed Forces and do not want to enter a lengthy training program.
Those military service members face what Hodges calls “no-job stress disorder,” a predicament he says every member of the Armed Forces will encounter one day.
“Everyone has that stress, even if you’re a commander,” he said. “What is my future?”
‘A WARM HANDOFF’
WorkForce Central, a Tacoma nonprofit connecting workers with employers, has established programs and partnerships to help veterans and service members make the transition from the military into civilian jobs.
The agency is putting an emphasis on helping veterans under the age of 24 because they make up the largest unemployed and homeless population it sees, said Shellie Willis, military workforce development manager.
“We’re seeing a huge gap there,” Willis said of veterans leaving the service without knowing where to go. “We don’t want them to leave that gate without a warm handoff.”
At JBLM, troops leaving the military can start preparing for their transitions about a year before their expected separation date. They attend courses under the Army and Air Force Career Alumni Program, which gives them a basic outline for how to find work.
That program became mandatory in 2011 when Congress adopted Washington Sen. Patty Murray’s Veterans Opportunity to Work Act.
After the introduction, service members can choose one of four more specific transition paths: higher education, apprenticeships, entrepreneurship or a job in the traditional workforce.
The tracks for higher education and apprenticeships are well-worn, fueled by legions of young veterans out to use their GI Bill benefits to re-educate or retrain themselves.
Many veterans say they get a good launch, including Tumwater’s Spencer Zeman. He jokingly calls himself the poster child of the Army and Air Force Career Alumni Program.
Once a manager of a training program for a brigade, Zeman, 28, now owns a Window Genie window and exterior house-cleaning franchise that serves the Tumwater, Olympia and Lacey areas all the way north to DuPont.
Zeman connected with people through the alumni program who helped him transfer his administrative skills from the Army to reach his goal of becoming an entrepreneur, he said.
But others making the transition out of uniform — mainly those at entry-level positions — often saw their skills translate to three fields: police, security guard or manual labor, Zeman said.
“You’re not really leaving these guys much opportunity,” he said.
‘NERVOUS BUT EXCITED, TOO’
Coaching veterans on finding a more traditional workforce job has been a trickier endeavor for the military because résumé workshops, job fairs and networking events rarely lead to immediate results.
That’s a frustrating challenge for JBLM transition program managers who have watched corporate America pledge to hire veterans by the thousands but could not steer service members directly to those companies.
To give veterans more options, the federal government has created additional programs that do more than train veterans for specific fields.
One program is being tried only at JBLM. Called Camo2Commerce it connects veterans — especially those who have never been in the civilian workforce — with career counselors, education and short-term training programs. It also gives employers a financial incentive to hire veterans.
“That one-on-one approach is really important for those who don’t know what they want to do,” said project director Sean Murphy. The program is only funded for two years, but Murphy hopes its success will lead to additional funding.
Former Army Capt. Ann Reiter, who started her own civilian career in state government this year, helped refine JBLM’s approach to leading troops to civilian work. She helped launch a new, intense program called Northwest Edge that grooms service members for work in Puget Sound.
Over two months, they spend one day a week participating in rigorous job training classes that match them with Puget Sound employers of all sizes. They get exposure to local and state agencies, large corporate employers and small businesses, including some site visits.
“I’m nervous, but I’m excited, too,” said Lt. Col. Beth Schwaigert, an I Corps human resources officer who was getting an early jump on her transition when she enrolled in Northwest Edge. She had a year to go before her retirement.
“For 20 years, I’ve known where to go, what to wear, just the complete culture.”
Knight was in the second group of Northwest Edge participants last spring. At the time, he wondered if he wanted to pursue a career in security, or maybe management.
All he knew for sure was that he wanted a job that let him spend more time with his family than he had during his military career.
“After nine deployments down range, it’s time to give my family some time,” he said.
‘I HAVE A DEADLINE’
Participants in the course feed off each other, sharing tips for how to land an interview and how to present themselves.
At one Northwest Edge résumé workshop in April, soldiers and airmen weighed how to present themselves to employers with little military experience.
“The question always comes up, ‘What did you do in the military?’ ” said Maj. Kevin Burke to the class.
Burke, who worked in civil affairs, said he struggled with how to translate his military training to something that made sense to the private sector. He worked to give succinct examples about projects he accomplished, usually scrubbing them of dangerous scenes that might make a civilian recruiter uncomfortable.
“I’ve got to change everything from ‘I told soldiers to do pushups’ to ‘I mentored them, I motivated them,’” he said.
Most participants knew they wanted to work, but could not say exactly what kind of field they wanted to pursue. They were united in that they had no interest in leaving the workforce for school or job training.
“I feel that providing for my wife is a little more important than going to school,” said Spc. Adam Kennedy, 24.
He worked in information technology at JBLM, but at Northwest Edge he said he wanted to get away from desk work.
“I am a huge outdoors person,” Kennedy said.
His enlistment is scheduled to end in early September.
“I’m worried about rushing into something, but I have to remember I have a deadline,” he said at an April class.
The program peaked a month later with a networking event at a JBLM restaurant on American Lake. The military service members mingled with recruiters, many of whom they had met during the course of the program.
Larry Phillips, a recruiter for the Oregon-based Pape Group, a collection of companies that supply construction and agriculture businesses, said the military provides “probably the biggest pool talent of all kinds of backgrounds coming into the work force.”
He’s become a regular at JBLM job fairs, looking for people he thinks the company can train.
“I’m kind of more interested in where they’re from,” Phillips said. “They’ve seen life at its best and maybe life at its worst.”
By then, Kennedy had narrowed his job search to look for businesses that would draw on his military training in information technology.
By August, Kennedy had a job offer to become an electronics manager for a company that works at JBLM. He took it and starts this week.
‘I’M ACTUALLY LOVING IT’
Ryan Knight had little to do at the networking event because he’d already landed a job.
The airman grew so nervous as his retirement date approached that he responded to dozens of job ads. One, Tacoma’s Tomlinson Linen Service, liked how he presented himself. The company offered him a job based on his potential to be a manager.
Knight credited Northwest Edge for opening his eyes about new careers.
“They helped me realized I had a lot more to bring to the table than just law enforcement,” he said.
Three months later, he’s at work for the Tacoma company.
“Surprisingly, I’m actually loving it,” even though it’s an entirely different line of work than the military, he said.
“I still get to lead people, meet people and interact with people.”