FORT BRAGG, N.C. - About 1,200 soldiers recently were ordered and urged by Fort Bragg brass to prepare for their future mission: transition to a civilian job.
This sprawling Army post was part of an expanding effort to help soon-to-be veterans as the American military downsizes with the end of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Airborne soldiers in maroon berets and corporals in camouflage uniforms prepared for the end of their military careers by meeting civilian employers, learning to interview and write resumes, and scouting the benefits available to veterans starting the rest of their lives.
The two-day transition summit was the third in a series at Army bases this year organized by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, the Pentagon and the departments of Veterans Affairs and Labor.
"Every one of us is going to retire. The Army is not our only life," said Maj. Gen. Clarence K.K. Chinn, Fort Bragg's interim commander. "The challenge is education. It's all free. It's their taxpayer dollars at work. But you can't use it if you don't know."
About 8,500 of Fort Bragg's 57,000 soldiers leave for civilian life every year, Chinn said, and the pressure to help them find work is increasing as the Army faces one of the deepest draw-downs since World War II. The Army plans to reduce its fighting force from a high of about 570,000 at the peak of the Iraq war to 490,000.
The national unemployment rate for all veterans over 18 was 6 percent in July, slightly below the 6.2 percent jobless rate for all workers. But conditions are hard for newer vets. The jobless rate for veterans who served since 2001 dipped last year to 9 percent, according to an annual report by the Labor Department released in March. For young veterans between 18 and 24, the unemployment rate in 2013 was a very high 21.4 percent.
Lt. Mary Kolars, 26, of Rochester, Minn., graduated from officer candidate school in the four years since she joined the Army. But even officers face being forced out of a military career, so she wanted to be ready.
"You definitely don't want to be caught unprepared. Downsizing is on a lot of people's minds. That's definitely one of the reasons why these transition workshops have become such a big thing," she said.
Recruiters for Duke Energy Inc. were on the hunt for soldiers with scientific, technical and management experience to fill dozens of open jobs from accounting to nuclear plant maintenance. Former Navy nuclear engineer Jim Louy and Steve Moore, a former artilleryman, helped service members explain their military skills to human resources colleagues at the nation's largest electricity company. A background in artillery means a soldier is accustomed to working outdoors and loud noises, so working at a power plant or on transmission lines could be a good fit, Louy said.
"Generating power, at the end of the day, it's a boots-on-the-ground, turning wrenches, get-your-fingernails-dirty job every day. So those people who understand technical skills, who can read and translate what they've read into an actionable item, those are the skill-sets that work great," Louy said.