TAMPA — If it were up to Col. Scott V. DeThomas, every veteran who left MacDill Air Force Base would stay in Tampa Bay.
"If you're a veteran who needs to find work, I'd much rather be here than anywhere else," said DeThomas, commander of the 6th Air Mobility Wing at MacDill.
The Tampa Bay community supports veterans, he said, but the transition from military to civilian life proves challenging.
According to Hillsborough County Veterans Affairs, there are almost 100,000 veterans living in this area.
A panel that included DeThomas met Thursday night at the Tampa Firefighters Museum to discuss veteran employment. 83 Degrees Media facilitated the panel as part of its "Not Your Average Speakers" series.
Nationally, the unemployment rate for post-9/11-era veterans is 10 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Going to college after active duty "was a complete culture shock," said panelist Kiersten Downs, a doctoral student at the University of South Florida who spent seven years in the Air Force and New York Air National Guard. "Sometimes we forget how difficult that transition can be."
MacDill has a federally mandated transition program that offers services like help preparing for interviews and constructing resumes. While it's making strides, DeThomas said, he called the program "adequate." A one-size-fits-all mandated program with limited staffing may not fully meet all the needs in a dynamic community like Tampa Bay, he said.
What makes the transition difficult for veterans? The challenge of going from the regimented life of the military, where everyone has a clear mission and purpose, back to civilian life.
"That was the most difficult, figuring out where to go now, with no one telling me where to go at 6 a.m.," said Ryan Moran, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is the founder and chief executive officer of the Veterans Edge, a nonprofit group that helps veterans find jobs.
Especially for those coming from combat or infantry, Moran said, it can be difficult to see ways to translate the skills they learned in the military to the business world.
Some veterans may come out of the military with practical, technical skills, but even those who don't have useful intangibles like creative thinking and the ability to work under pressure, the panel agreed.
The challenge for veterans, they said, is to take those intangible skills and find ways to use them in the private sector.
"We make wonderful entrepreneurs because we're focused and motivated," said Downs, who is on the national student council of Student Veterans of America. "If you give us something we don't know how to do, we're going to figure out how to do it."
Audience member Michael Lortz, 36, a Tampa veteran now in the MBA program at USF full time, called it a "repositioning of skills."
The military taught him how to research, work under pressure, meet deadlines and work on a team, he told the panel. But learning the business world and how to make those skills fit is like learning a foreign language, he said.
"I would like to stay in Tampa," he said after the discussion. "So how do I stay in the Tampa Bay area and still find a job that I'm comfortable with, that speaks to my skill set?"
Fixing the problem requires breaking down walls and bringing veterans organizations and businesses together, Moran said.
In the next month or so, MacDill plans to bring back Operation Partnership, an initiative to bring people in the business community together with people at MacDill. It's meant to be relaxed, DeThomas said, and if all goes well perhaps made into a more frequent meeting.
MacDill also holds quarterly job fairs that bring in more than 70 employers looking to hire veterans, DeThomas said, noting the tax credits available for companies that hire veterans.
If companies want to be part of the solution, he said, they need to make those hiring practices a priority.
"You really have to set a mandate and hold yourself accountable to that mandate if you're going to get there," he said.
Keeley Sheehan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2453.