It was a few days after Christmas, but no one was feeling festive.
The mood around the Pacific Mountain Workforce Development Council office was grim; word had arrived from the Department of Labor that funding for the Camo2Commerce (C2C) program had been redirected to address job losses in the aftermath of hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Ten staff members would have to be laid off or reassigned, and the program would close.
“HR had already brought me the layoff letters,” says PacMtn CEO Cheryl Fambles. “Then, at 9:29, the phone rang. HR ran right in and snatched those letters out of my hands.”
The staff had been praying for a Christmas miracle, and it got one. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray stepped in and went to bat for the program, securing an additional year of funding.
“You can only imagine how deeply appreciative we are,” Fambles says. “The amount of caring she has shown for the folks at JBLM (Joint Base Lewis McChord) has been consistent and pretty phenomenal.”
The end of the program would have been a loss, not just for service members looking for careers after leaving the military, but for businesses throughout the Puget Sound. C2C focuses on two key areas: helping service members and spouses move into meaningful civilian careers that make the most of their abilities, and assisting local companies ranging from small businesses to corporations to integrate veterans into their organizations.
C2C has an 87 percent placement rate and has been so successful that workforce councils in other states are looking to replicate the model, including one working with four military installations in Anne Arundel County in Maryland. Murray has played a role in spreading the word.
“I’d love to see this highly successful model replicated elsewhere, which is why I have shared the success of Camo2Commerce with my colleagues in Congress many times and will continue to do so,” Murray says.
Although similar efforts exist elsewhere, C2C is unique in two ways: Training and support services can begin up to 12 months before transition, and its the first multi regional American Job Center in the nation to be located on a military based opened in July.
“C2C has reshaped the way transition is approached on the installation,” says Sytease Geib, Vice President of Workforce Development for the Thurston Chamber of Commerce. “Now it’s not just about checking a box; it’s about starting earlier, thinking about what you’re going to do next, and getting business and industry more engaged in the process.”
For service members, training takes two forms. They can retrain for a new field, obtain a civilian certification that leverages military experience, and/or learn how to market their skills through targeted resume classes and rigorous interview simulations.
Part of the process is helping them understand what they know, says Michelle Winn, Camo2Commerce Workforce Development Business Developer.
“Some of them have no idea what they can leverage. Just today I had a combat engineer in one of my classes, and I had to remind him that he’s a small group leader.”
For Talon Pope of the 32nd Army Air Defense & Missile Command, the experience has been revelatory.
“Not a lot of people in the Army realize how many skills they use daily,” he says. “If someone comes along and explains that, you start to realize what you’re capable of.”
On the business side, C2C helps recruiters and companies set up employees for success. “In the military, there’s a culture of camaraderie,” says Winn. “When companies look at bringing veterans on board, they’re becoming aware that they may need to create a Veterans Infinity group. They identify veterans in their own organization and introduce the new candidate to that group, where they can talk about their transition experiences.”
That makes sense to Dave Boyne, Director of Training at Aviation Technical Services.
“When those of us with military backgrounds came up through the system, it was less structured,” he says. “We’re recognizing the leadership potential in a more strategic process. There’s a shortage of qualified technicians throughout the aerospace industry, and it’s difficult to find experienced leaders to come into this business at the operations level. We’ve hired three people from C2C as supervisors, and we believe it gives us a competitive advantage.”
Other service members may have a sliver of IT in their military background that can be expanded.
“They’re the ones we put in shortterm training programs to take them to the next level,” says Winn. “They can learn Linux or gain the certification that makes them qualified for a position with companies like Amazon or Microsoft.”
That approach is working, says Nick Curry, Military Talent Pipeline Program Manager at Amazon Web Services.
“We know veterans are a great cultural fit at Amazon, but sometimes they lack the technical skills needed to succeed here. Our partnership with C2C has helped us address that gap.”
The additional $2 million in funding for this year means that such services can continue, with added emphasis on two areas: creating a permanent presence for the public workforce system on base at JBLM with expanded offerings for veterans and federal contractors, and new services for spouses of military service members.
“We have around 5,500 to 6,500 people per year exiting the military through JBLM,” says Fambles. “Around 40 percent of them choose to stay in this area. Now we’re also going to be expanding services for spouses.”
Murray has a long history of supporting military causes. She is the daughter of a WWII veteran and a senior member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. She was the driving force behind the VOW to Hire Heroes Act, which passed in 2011.
“I’m so grateful for programs on the ground like Camo2Commerce, especially in communities with a high number of returning service members,” says Murray. “They have the information and know-how to connect military families to the resources and services they have earned. This is a win-win for our economy and our military families, and something I wholeheartedly support.”