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Translating Military Experience Into Jobs For Charlotte Veterans

Wanda Weeks teaches a resume workshop in the Operation Independence computer lab.

Wanda Weeks teaches a resume workshop in the Operation Independence computer lab. Photo: Julie Rose On this Veterans Day, we take a look at an increasingly pressing problem for former service members: the unemployment rate for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is 12.1 percent. That's compared to the nationwide rate of 9 percent. WFAE reports on a program at Goodwill Industries in Charlotte that's getting attention from Congress for its success in helping veterans find work. Operation Independence is exactly one year old. On Veterans Day 2010, Microsoft gave Goodwill Industries in Charlotte $2 million to put a dent in the unemployment problem for the region's growing veteran population. The conflict in Iraq was drawing down. More and more servicemen were coming home to the daunting prospect of a job hunt in a tight economy. Bryan Smith, General Manager of G4S in Charlotte and employee Tyrone Lewis. Photo: Julie Rose Returning to America after a deployment, Tyrone Lewis felt like he was "from another country." He'd be in the Army since 1989 - so long that even the language of the job-search seemed foreign when he got out. "My resume's basically military," says Lewis. "You know 62-Bravo, which is heavy construction equipment mechanic. 88-mike which is a military truck driver, so on and so forth." It never occurred to him those terms might confuse someone without military experience. For nearly a year he shopped that resume and found nothing. He figured he just wasn't what employers wanted. It wasn't until he popped in to the Goodwill Employment Center on Freedom Drive back in May that he realized maybe his skills were getting lost in translation. He was quickly introduced to caseworkers with Goodwill's Operation Independence. They gave Lewis' resume an overhaul and told him about a security company he'd never heard of. Within two weeks he got a job offer from G4S. Lewis is now one of the neatly-uniformed guards checking IDs and keeping watch over the entrance to Bank of America's new office tower. About 20 percent of the 800 G4S employees in the Charlotte area are veterans, says general manager Bryan Smith. "They bring a work history," says Smith. "They bring a work ethic of showing up on time. Knowing what the job is. Completing the job. So our veterans are extremely important in a lot of our jobs." A security firm is an obvious fit, but transportation, trucking and logistics companies also have positions similar to military jobs - they're just named differently. Nicholas Riggins, director of Goodwill's Operation Independence. Photo: Julie Rose Operation Independence director Nicholas Riggins spent nearly eight years in the Air Force. He's part-liaison, part-translator for the veterans who come to the program and he spends a lot of time meeting with hiring managers in the community. Most companies have some sort of goal - or even a federal mandate - to recruit veterans, but Riggins says they're often at a loss and pay recruiters big money to find veteran applicants. "So (these companies) call us and they'll say well this doesn't cost anything? 'No it doesn't cost you anything at all. Just reach out to us if you're trying to hire veterans, let us help you,'" says Riggins. In just one year, Operation Independence has managed to help more than 100 veterans and 50 family members of veterans in the Charlotte area either find work or get the training they need to advance their civilian careers. Community colleges, unemployment offices and even the public library have long offered career counseling and resume advice, but Riggins says a strong suit for Operation Independence is he has veterans working with other veterans. "We have people who can actually understand the language," says Riggins. With the $2 million grant from Microsoft, Goodwill was able to set up a special computer lab just for veterans. Free classes cover technology basics like how to use Word or Excel. There's also a resume workshop. Beyond classes, Operation Independence sticks with veterans through each rejection and resume revision until they succeed. That's what impressed Tyrone Lewis: Five months after Operation Independence helped him get a job guarding the Bank of America building, Riggins from Goodwill still calls to check in: "It kind of gives you a feeling that, 'You know what? Someone out there really, really cares,'" says Lewis. "Not just to the point of calling you but putting you in place to ensure that you're gonna be okay." Last month, Operation Independence caught the eye of Congress. Nicholas Riggins was invited to Washington to talk about ways to eliminate the barriers veterans face in the job hunt. He's pushing the Department of Defense to start issuing certificates that match with those required in various industries. Often Riggins says veterans are stuck enrolling in remedial certificate programs just to be considered for a job, because their vast real-world experience is - once again - lost in translation.