Every Tuesday morning, professional hospitality recruiter Louis Yuhasz takes his regular place on the third floor of Charleston's Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center.
Over the next couple hours, he meets with job-seeking military veterans, discussing career goals and local openings, revising resumes and filling out applications. Often, veterans leave his temporary office with an interview date set at a local hotel or restaurant.
They call the program “Turnaround Tuesdays,” and it sprang from an idea that Yuhasz, who works with Explore Charleston, felt addressed two needs: Charleston restaurants and hotels need long-term workers, and the VA’s workforce program needs reliable, accessible employers.
Soon after pitching the idea, the VA agreed Yuhasz would come to the center once a week to meet with job seekers. They called it “Motivational Monday,” but ended up moving and renaming the program.
“It turns out, Monday isn’t really good for anyone,” Yuhasz said. Turnaround Tuesdays caught on from there.
Since establishing the partnership with the VA in early spring, more than 30 veterans have been placed in Charleston-area hospitality jobs, making the program Explore Charleston's most lucrative local recruiting partner, said Laurie Lynn A. Smith, vice president of operations for the bureau.
Partnering with the VA aligned with the bureau's workforce initiative, Smith said, because the organization was already preparing local veterans to be work-ready. At that point, she said, they could step in to be a bridge between the veterans and local hotels and restaurants while still keeping the VA involved in the process.
That’s allowed Bridgetta Blockmon, the VA’s community employment coordinator, to work with Yuhasz to ensure that employers are offering the right accommodations.
"They have to have interest and concern for our veterans and understand their needs," Blockmon said.
Many veterans already have applicable hospitality experience, said Donta Trapps, who coordinates workforce readiness programs at the VA. All military branches have lodging and dining facilities on base which are staffed and managed by service members, and, often, those individuals earn associate's degrees in culinary arts, hotel management or another related field.
"They already have these skills," he said. "It's a natural fit."
That was the case for Olivette Peterson, a veteran who, during her time with the Air Force, got experience working for lodging on base. Peterson now works as a shuttle bus driver at the Hilton Garden Inn downtown and was one of the first veterans placed through the program.
After Peterson moved from Michigan to Charleston, she found herself both homeless and in need of a job when her living arrangement fell through. At the VA, she was matched with housing and a position at the Hilton doing customer service over the phone.
She did well in the position, but wanted to work face-to-face with customers and was later switched to her role as a shuttle driver, a job which she now says is “like her therapy.”
"It's an easy place for me. I'll talk about anything with the guests — where we were brought up as kids, the topics of today, the weather, our jobs," Peterson said. "Being me and being cordial is relaxing.”
In June, the partnership with the Charleston VA was recognized with a Golden Pineapple Award, Explore Charleston’s highest distinction for the local service sector. It was the first organization outside of the hospitality industry to receive the award.
Word is spreading among local veterans, too. People who aren't in the VA's workforce training programs have started asking about Turnaround Tuesdays, Trapps said, and the center is working on setting up similar networking days for other local industries.