SC veterans have backup when making switch to civilian jobs


Dressed sharply in a blue business suit and yellow tie, Air Force Master Sgt. Donald Ennis was nervously waiting to meet a group of potential employers as he closed the door on more than 20 years of military service.

“I can sell ketchup popsicles to a woman in white gloves,” Ennis said.

Still, the prospect of face-to-face meetings with representatives of about 78 companies looking to hire was daunting.

“I am a little nervous,” Ennis said.

Ennis and more than 500 other military personnel and their spouses signed up to attend a recent career summit at an event organized by Joint Base Charleston with the help of Hiring Our Heroes. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce launched the initiative in 2011 for service members and their families to address a national crisis in veteran unemployment.

That year, the jobless rate for all veterans was 8.3 percent. The unemployment rate for veterans who served on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces at any time since September 2001 — a group referred to as Gulf War-era II veterans — was 12.1 percent, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported.

The numbers have since declined significantly. In May, the veteran unemployment rate was 2.9 percent, down from 4.4 percent the prior year.

But transitioning to life outside of the military remains challenging. Roughly 200,000 service members make the switch each year, according to the Department of Defense.

“It’s like you’re standing on the edge of a cliff, and you jump off, and your parachute doesn’t open,” Ennis said.

“It’s the fear of the unknown,” he added.

Lt. Col. Chad Atkinson, seeking gainful employment after 25 years in the Air Force, echoed the sentiment. He plans to stick to what he knows, in project management and consulting, and hopes to remain in the area

While in the military, “you know your job, your pay, and you have security.”

Atkinson said the challenges stem from leaving the structured environment of the armed services and stepping into a work situation that encourages free thinking and trying to figure it out.

Hiring Our Heroes

Joint Base Charleston leader Col. Marc Greene speaks about his impending retirement from the Air Force during the Hiring Our Heroes career summit on June 15, 2022. Brad Nettles/Staff

Ready to assist

But help is available.

“The base and other organizations are on your side, Atkinson said.

Groups such as, TAPS, or Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors), Hiring our Heroes, and Wounded Warrior Project “help set you up for your next career,” Atkinson said.

Hiring Our Heroes runs events at bases across the U.S. They provide learning opportunities, expert advice, and job fairs to help reduce the number of unemployed veterans, said Matt Sharman, Joint Base Charleston’s public engagement officer for military family readiness.

According to the organization’s website, from its inception in 2011 to March 2021, more than 31,000 veterans and military spouses have obtained employment opportunities through the job fairs.

Some large employers are onboard, recognizing that military personnel typically understand procedures, can take direction, and have hands-on skills in areas such as logistics, Sharman said.

Among the companies represented at the Joint Base Charleston event to pick from the crop of transitioning and recently retired service members and their family members were Toyota, Amazon, Microsoft Corp. and Boeing Co.

There were 90,000 jobs up for grabs, “40 percent of the offers were on the spot.” Many of the openings were for remote positions geared at military spouses who find it hard to get jobs because of how often they relocate, Sharman said.

Master Sgt. Ennis said he and his family moved five times during his 20 years of service. A military medical technician, he said he was looking for employers that would help him pivot to a new career once he’s out of uniform.

“I don’t want anything medical,” he said.

Hiring Our Heroes

Beau Higgins of with Amazon (center) answers questions during the Hiring Our Heroes post-military career event at Joint Base Charleston on June 15, 2022. Brad Nettles/Staff

Ennis, who owns a home and hopes to stay in the Charleston region, added that location can be key to a successful transition, comparing areas that have a heavy military presence to those that don’t. 

“People can have a negative view, and that makes it tough to break in,” Ennis said of the latter.

Sharman said that figuring out what to do is the biggest challenge in transitioning from military to civilian life.

“The difficulty lies in creating a new identity that isn’t associated with what they were doing according to their rank,” Sharman said.

‘Plenty of help’

Mark Toal, director for the Office of Strategic Outreach at the U.S. Department of Labor Veterans’ Employment and Training Service, said the transition is challenging for almost everyone.

One of the most challenging questions is, “what do I want to do, and how do I get there?”

There are several pathways, Toal said.

“Some members might need bachelor’s or master’s degrees, and others might want to go into trades, (information technology) or the cybersecurity industry. Some might get recognized certifications through training.”

Also, federal, state, and nonprofit organizations have formed partnerships with the Department of Labor, which Toal said is a “fantastic way for veterans to find employment.”

“There is plenty of help for veteran job seekers,” he said.

Toal added that it is important to note that although some veterans struggle to find employment, others don’t. He also said veterans tend to earn more than their co-workers who weren’t in the military and were 39 percent more likely to be promoted.

“Employers want veterans. They can’t find enough of them,” Toal said. “The private sector recognizes the soft and tech skills they bring to the workplace.”

Hiring Our Heroes

Beau Higgins of Amazon (center) answers questions during the Hiring Our Heroes event at Joint Base Charleston on June 15, 2022. The career summit was held for military personnel and their spouses who are leaving the military and seeking employment in the civilian sector. Brad Nettles/Staff

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