Nearly 600,000 veterans live in Washington State, and companies throughout the Puget Sound region want to hire them. The challenge, prior to 2013, was dual: how to help them transition from the U.S. military into a civilian workforce while also preparing businesses to make the best use of their training and skills.
Then came Camo2Commerce (C2C), a Pacific Mountain Workforce Development and WorkForce Central program funded by a Department of Labor grant. C2C took an innovative approach to the transition process, one that included the first America’s Job Center in the nation to be integrated on a military base; strong and ongoing connections between regional corporations and non-profits and transition services at Joint Base Lewis McChord (JBLM); a program specifically designed to help military spouses in transition; and a model that has drawn national attention, aspects of which are being replicated at military installations around the country.
“The program broke down barriers, both physical and perceptual,” said Michele Helfgott-Waters, program manager for Work Based Learning at Thurston County Chamber of Commerce. “Through C2C, businesses learned how valuable a service member could be to their business.”
Funding for the program was set to expire in 2015, but three years and three extensions later, C2C finally wrapped up at the end of 2018, leaving a lasting impact on how the U.S. military conducts the transition process. “For the DOL to expand this particular grant for a five-year period speaks volumes about the effectiveness and professionalism with which it was administered,” said Lourdes ‘Alfie’ Alvarado-Ramos, director of the Washington Department of Veterans Affairs and chair of the Washington State Military Transition Council.
According to Chris Gentz, transition services specialist at JBLM, PacMtn has shifted ideas about how to prepare service members. “PacMtn has changed the entire conversation about how to get a service member ready for transition, what best practices look like, and how we engage those members and their families from the moment they come on to the installation to the time they leave,” he said.
C2C facilitated direct employment connections for over 1,400 people. Placements for another 1,500 people have occurred nationally through a fellowship initially launched at JBLM in partnership with the U.S. Chamber Foundation, according to Sean Murphy, associate director of strategic initiatives at PacMtn. “We’ve set a lot of trends here locally,” he said. “With the job center being formalized on base, it’s expanded the number of people being served there.” The WorkSource will remain in place, rather than C2C, being the primary service provider for job seekers on JBLM.
Another aspect continuing is the Spouse Ambassador program, which provides resources and support for spouses of transitioning service members. “We’re a small office of three,” said Kim Fallen, employment readiness manager for Personnel and Family Readiness at JBLM. “The program gave us a lot more resources to provide and a portfolio spouses could choose from to find the right career path.”
The success of the model garnered national attention, said Alvarado-Ramos, heightening the reputation of JBLM in the process. “Everybody came to Washington State to see the model that we had put in place at work because it was unlike anything else in the country.”
Although the program has now ended, the legacy remains. “The intent of C2C to serve military families and assist them in securing careers lives on through both our partner agencies and the new PacMtn Dislocated Worker program at JBLM,” said Helfgott-Waters.
Alvarado-Ramos agrees. “C2C showed the value of hiring veterans,” she said. “All those corporations and not-for-profits will continue engaging our service members and their families.”