Hamilton Place Mall is teaming up with VetForce1, a new Chattanooga nonprofit, to celebrate Veterans’ Day by thanking veteran friendly employers at “Veteran Friendly Chattanooga 2012.”
The event will take place in at Hamilton Place Mall on Saturday from 12-4 p.m.
“This is our first public event,” says Larry Trabucco, VetForce1 founder and president of the organization’s volunteer board. “We’ve been together just six months; however, the interest in our mission has been so strong that we’re being pulled into service much faster than we anticipated.” That interest is coming from both area employers that want to hire qualified veterans and from veterans that are looking for a new career in Chattanooga.
“Although there are many good services for veterans in the area,” says Mr. Trabucco, “they aren’t adequately addressing the basic need for meaningful employment.” Rather than complain about the problem, however, Mr. Trabucco got together a group of businessmen and women to fix it.
“Our initial focus,” says Tim Dempsey a social sector consultant who has helped Trabucco organize VetForce1, “has been to create a program that will efficiently answer the employment needs of recently separated veterans – those that have come home during the Gulf War era.”
There are more 28,000 veterans in Hamilton County with nearly 7,600 fitting Mr. Dempsey’s description. “These men and women experience an unemployment rate that misrepresents our gratitude for their service,” he says. “If they fought to protect our way of life on foreign soil, shouldn’t we fight a little for them to participate in it when they come home?”
The unemployment rate for Gulf War era veterans is around 12 percent. And the younger they are the worse things get, officials said. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the youngest veterans experienced an unemployment rate of 29.1 percent last year. That’s about six and a half times the national average.
And that’s a statistic that doesn’t sit well with the companies which are partnering with VetForce1, including CBL which was founded by veterans more than 30 years ago. The company sees its partnership with VetForce1 as a way to show its appreciation for the sacrifices veterans have made by assisting them in their transition back to civilian life. “CBL's decision to join VetForce1 was simple,” says Maggie Carrington, vice president of Human Resources. “Their mission resonates with us because it enables a coalition of employers to give these veterans the freedom to pursue their dreams coupled with the support of individuals within those companies who are committed to help them succeed.”
“The transition from military service to a civilian job can be extremely difficult,” points out Nick Lemley, a Marine veteran who served four years in Asia including Afghanistan. Mr. Lemley now owns Devil Dawg Farms in Ringgold where he raises free range pigs and wants to offer an apprenticeship program for disabled veterans. “One of the toughest things for veterans looking for a job,” Mr. Lemley says, “is the trouble they have translating their military experience in a way that civilian employers can understand.” As a result, even those employers that stand to benefit the most don’t know how to evaluate the skillsets veterans bring to the table.
Joe Ledbetter is another veteran entrepreneur who decided to capitalize on Chattanooga’s nearly forgotten heritage with Whiskey to begin his company, Chattanooga Whiskey. Mr. Ledbetter plans to hire as many veterans as he can when his company begins operations in Chattanooga. But he also knows how hard it is to transition from the military to, what he calls, “the real world.” “The services that are available to separated veterans don’t always work for them and many are forced to do what they can on their own to make it,” he says. “It’s a tough situation.” Mr. Ledbetter believes that the private sector is in a unique position to solve many of the problems veterans face when they try to find a job. “I love the way VetForce1 is going about its mission,” says Mr. Ledbetter. “They’re not just engaging employers as a resource for unemployed veterans but building the program around them.”
Many veterans use school as a way of making their credentials more relevant to civilian employers. James Scott is one of approximately 600 veterans that are currently pursuing a college degree at UTC and Chattanooga State on the GI Bill. After two tours in Iraq, Mr. Scott began classes at UTC and took up a personal mission to make the campus more veteran friendly. So he started a chapter of Student Veterans of America with two other student veterans, Justin McDonald and Jarred Dickerson. Mr. Scott reiterates Mr. Lemley’s remarks about translating military experience and adds that their professional networks don’t help much. “Military service takes you all over the world,” he points out. “So the professional contacts we make are also all over the world.” Not only must veterans compete for jobs with skillsets that are difficult to explain but, “We are competing without the benefit of the kind of local network that helps others get access to really good jobs in Chattanooga.”
The types of higher level positions many veterans are seeking in the private sector require complex people-oriented skills to succeed, officials said. Most are forced to go it alone in the competition for these jobs when there is a ready supply of upcoming managers in companies all around town who could help. When fully functioning, VetForce1 will partner with 52 area employers under the banner of Company 52. “The name comes from the fact that we can feature one company a week at a meet-and-greet session for VetForce1 participants,’” says Mr. Dempsey. The overall plan is simple he explains, “We connect with veterans pursuing a college degree on the GI Bill, match them with corporate mentors from participating companies and then refer them to internship and career opportunities with these same companies.”
Companies that are interested in learning more about becoming a member of VetForce1’s Company 52 should contact the organization. “We see a day when every veteran that wants a job has a job,” says Mr. Dempsey, “but we have a lot to do to get there.”
Employers participating in Veteran Friendly Chattanooga 2012 include:
Devil Dawg Farms
First Tennessee Bank
Student Veteran Association