Veteran unemployment continues slide

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Teamwork is integral to the success of any military mission.

Local community partners are employing that same philosophy when it comes to helping exiting service members and veterans find work.

“Colorado Springs is a great, great community with so many resources readily available for our transitioning military,” said Bill Price, the transition services manager at Fort Carson. “There are several nonprofits and businesses that are willing to take a service member and help them through the process of transitioning into civilian life.”

The number of jobless veterans dropped again in May as the nation’s unemployment rate fell to its lowest level since 2000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In Colorado, the annual unemployment rate for veterans dipped from 3.9 percent in 2016 to 3.7 percent last year, said Bill Thoennes, public information officer with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, in an email.

Price and outgoing Fort Carson Garrison Commander Col. Ronald Fitch say the area’s community partnerships and the base’s transition program deserve at least some credit in the decline of unemployed veterans.

“When you look back to 2013, the Army was paying upwards of $500 million to the Department of Labor for soldiers that were either not enrolled in school or unemployed after they left the service,” Fitch said. “That’s come down to about $130 million now, which allows that other money to go back into the Army’s operational fund. I think it’s having support from the local business community and nonprofits in hiring fairs and workforce training that has made it possible for us to really make an impact.”

The U.S. Department of Labor issued an advisory in April 2016 to state workforce agencies prohibiting unemployment insurance programs from providing unemployment compensation to certain individuals receiving post-9/11 educational assistance under the GI Bill.

“While the Colorado Division of Unemployment Insurance receives separation payment information from the military, we do not receive information about post-9/11 GI Bill payments,” Thoennes said.

Colorado, like all states, he explained, is still awaiting guidance from the federal agency on how to capture that information in addition to how to administer the amendments outlined in the advisory.

Meanwhile, Price said about 38 percent of the service members who transition from Fort Carson remain in the area.

“That’s a high number and I think that’s a credit to the services they receive while they are here and the community partnerships outside the gate that want to help our service members,” he said. “They feel very welcomed here.”

At Fort Carson, Price is in charge of the Soldier for Life Transition Program.

“Our program has two missions, with the first one being to prepare soldiers for the outside world by helping them realize what skills they have,” he said. “The second mission is to connect them. What we try to do is have a lot of different events where we can connect service members directly with human resource managers and employers that are looking for their skills.”

Both Mt. Carmel Veterans Service Center and the USO have signed memorandums of agreement with Fort Carson that permit them to work with service members at the base’s transition center.

“Mt. Carmel does a lot of great things for our veterans, including helping them transition,” Price said. “There also are a lot of nonprofits in the area who are involved in the transition process. Really, any organization or company that is a proven resource and that is helping our service members, we invite them to come and talk with them.”

The Pikes Peak Workforce Center also works extensively with Fort Carson — as well as other military installations — in connecting service members with post-military employment, said Traci Marques, the center’s executive director.

“We try to sit down on a regular basis and ask what the bases need from us to be able to be connected to our community and get the work readiness that the transitioning service members need,” she said. “We actually even have a position that we created that is a military relations specialist at Fort Carson to act as a constant liaison with the Workforce Center.”

Through multiple hiring events each year, the center tries to focus on alerting local employers to the “huge talent pipeline” feeding from area military installations, Marques said.

“At all of our hiring events, and in anything that we do, the state of Colorado mandates veterans have preference,” she said. “What we do for all of our job and hiring events that aren’t geared specifically towards the military is for the first 45 minutes to an hour only veterans and their spouses or transitioning service members are allowed in. We always give them priority of service to speak with the companies before the general public.”

Over the last year and a half, an average of about 410 service members transitioned each month from Fort Carson, Price said.

“If a service member is retiring, we suggest that they come at the 18-month out point, so that they are starting to prepare for life after the military,” he said, adding all military members are asked to come in from a year to a year and a half from their final day of service.

“We are bringing them in here and trying to start working on the skills they are going to need when they get out into the civilian community,” Price said. “That also allows them to take part in the Career Skills Program, which you have to be within 180 days of transition to participate in.”

The Army’s Career Skills Program allows soldiers — still on active duty — to take part in training opportunities in various industries.

It includes opportunities for apprenticeships, internships, job shadowing, on-the-job training and employment skills training.

“I believe we have 12 different apprenticeships or training programs for jobs right now at Fort Carson,” Price said. “But say we don’t have a certain training opportunity here but it’s down at Fort Hood, like the GM-certified automotive technician program there, we can send them … to another location that offers that program to get that training.”

There has been more emphasis recently on assisting service members’ transition, Price said.

“I can’t really define the exact point in time when that started happening,” he said. “I do know that every single service member that comes in here now has the opportunity to connect with an employer, and that’s a direct credit to our leadership here on Fort Carson and community partnerships.”

In November 2011, President Barack Obama signed the VOW (Veterans Opportunity to Work) to Hire Heroes Act, which mandates federal agencies give preferential hiring to exiting service members and veterans.

The legislation also made participating in the Transition Assistance Program mandatory for all service members moving into civilian life.

“All I can say is I know we have always had great support since I’ve been here not only from the community but from the commanding general and the garrison to always stress the importance of these types of programs I am running now,” Price said. “We always try to partner with other agencies in the community as well as the other military installations in Colorado Springs, so we all make sure we have the best practices in place and that we are taking advantage of each other’s services offered … because we all have the same goal of finding our transitioning service members their next job.”