A Civilized Transition

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This story was originally published in the August/September 2013 Issue of Chattanooga Magazine. 

At 31 years old, Jordan Betbeze has served four tours in Iraq, sacrificing time away from his wife and two young children to protect and serve our country. When he returned to Chattanooga in December 2011 after his final deployment, Jordan realized that competing for a good job in the civilian workforce would require more than just the experience and training he gained in the Army.

County Mayor, Jim Coppinger with Jill Guess and Tim Dempesy at the kick-off.

County Mayor, Jim Coppinger with Jill Guess and Tim Dempesy at the kick-off.

He decided to return to college on the GI Bill and enrolled at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga to pursue a double major in Business Industrial Management and General Business Management.

“When you leave the service, it is like your military experience doesn’t count,” says Betbeze, who specialized in transportation and logistics and achieved the rank of Staff Sergeant during his Army career. “The Army doesn’t train you to be certified in something, they train you to do the job.”

Jordan’s job in the Army required an extensive skill set: the technical skills required to drive a 70-ton truck plus the leadership and logistical skills required to train hundreds of soldiers and manage squads, platoons and convoys of over 100 soldiers. He was also involved with his squad on a personal level, making sure soldiers got their pay to their families, monitoring their mental health, and ensuring compliance with required Army reporting when issues arose.

“All of my logistics, managerial, and supervisory experience can translate to a job in the business sector, but the business sector wants a degree, so that is why I am going to school,” Betbeze.

Betbeze is not alone. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there are over 2.5 million post 9/11 veterans, and most have separated from the military during their prime “working” years (ages 25-40 years old). The transition from the military to meaningful employment in the civilian workforce can be a challenge for these veterans. The BLS reports that the youngest veterans experienced an unemployment rate of 29.1 percent last year—about six and a half times the national average.

A FIGHT FOR CHANGE
The employment obstacles faced by veterans were unacceptable for the founders of VetForce1, a Chattanooga nonprofit established in March 2012 to help veterans make a successful transition to civilian life and meaningful employment.

“If they fought to protect our way of life on foreign soil, shouldn’t we fight a little for them to participate in it when they come home?” asks Larry Trabucco, president of VetForce1 and a Human Resources professional who has seen, first hand, the struggles veterans face in the workforce. “In our work we have found that everybody really wants to do something to help veterans but they don’t know how or where.”

Over the last year, VetForce1 has been working to address the “how” and “where” by designing a mentoring program that provides one-on-one transition assistance and a unique career development opportunity for recently separated veterans attending UTC or Chattanooga State Community College. The program, Company 52, relies upon corporate partners who commit to recruiting employees to serve as mentors and hosting at least one career development program for VetForce1 participants each year. Corporate partners also provide financial support to VetForce1 and consider referrals for internships, student jobs, and career opportunities. VetForce1’s goal is to engage 52 companies in the program (hence, Company 52), which will support a career development luncheon led by a corporate partner each week of the year.

“The program has taken off quickly, and we are fortunate to have some great corporate partners on board to support the program,” says Trabucco. CBL & Associates Properties has become a lead corporate partner in Company 52 and is serving as the pilot site for the program. Other Chattanooga companies who are participating include Chattem, Ed Jacobs and Associates, EPB, First Tennessee, Walden Security, and Woople.

“CBL’s decision to join VetForce1 was simple,” says Maggie Carrington, Vice President of Human Resources at CBL. “Their mission resonates with us because it enables a coalition of employers to give these veterans the freedom to pursue their dreams coupled with the support of individuals within those companies who are committed to help them succeed.”

A UNIQUE APPROACH
Although there are other programs nationally geared at supporting veterans in their transition back to civilian life, VetForce1’s mentoring initiative is unique in its approach to working on a local level to match veterans with mentors at companies that are committed to supporting veterans. Several employees at CBL have signed up to serve as mentors, including Sue Roman, an Army veteran who is familiar with the unique challenges in the transition to the civilian workforce.

“I have a very deep respect for our military service men and women,” says Roman, a paralegal at CBL. “My own hope as a mentor is to be a conduit between the civilian employers so they can recognize the tremendous assets they have in a military veteran.”

Left to right, VetForce1 President, Larry Trabucco, Susan Rice and UTCs Dr. Robert Dooley.

Left to right, VetForce1 President, Larry Trabucco, Susan Rice and UTCs Dr. Robert Dooley.

The mentoring program launched at a kick-off event in May 2013 and the first mentor-mentee pairs were matched in July 2013. Over the course of the next year, mentors will commit at least 3-4 hours per month to helping their mentee establish academic and professional goals, as well as providing career development, networking opportunities, and assistance creating a resume and cover letter. The goal is for mentors to continue to work with mentees beyond one year as they support them through completing college and obtaining a job that matches their career goals, as well as providing support the first 12 months of employment.

“The important thing that a mentor helps with is translating the military jargon or military ‘speak’ to civilian ‘speak’ so that veterans can explain their job skills in the language potential employer will understand,” says Roman.

“While the commitment is for just one year, the goal of the mentoring program is to help a veteran during his or her junior or senior year of college and through the journey to successful employment.

“VetForce1 is generous and is going above and beyond what I would ever expect from a typical civilian,” says Betbeze. “I think it is a great program, and I hope I can help them build it into a solid program that will benefit local veterans.

To learn more about VetForce1 and ways to get involved visit www.vetforce1.org or call 423-529-3010 .

Photography by Deborah Petticord and Courtesy of VetForce1

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Jennifer Watts Hoff is a frequent contributor to Chattanooga Magazine.

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