When retired Army Col. Derrick Fishback first got out of the military in 1994, there wasn’t a lot of help for former servicemembers looking for civilian jobs.
As he approached retirement last year after returning to active duty, he had an internship lined up with IBM, thanks to a Department of Defense program. The internship led to a job with Amazon Web Services, where he now works remotely from his home in Pensacola.
“It was night and day,” he said of the two experiences seeking work after leaving the military.
Since 2014, the federal SkillBridge program has helped transitioning servicemembers get civilian work experience by allowing them to participate in industry training, apprenticeships or internships during their last 180 days of service.
Through a new coalition and state legislation supporting this program, Florida veteran and business groups hope to better connect transitioning servicemembers with jobs in the state.
SkillBridge is active in Florida, with more than 60 employers offering opportunities. Entities such as the nonprofit Veterans Florida and the Florida Chamber of Commerce want to better promote it to employers and servicemembers, and to help them apply. So last week, the two groups announced a coalition of Florida business and veteran organizations and state legislation aimed at just that.
The coalition is led by Veterans Florida and includes the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs, CareerSource Florida, the Florida Economic Development Council and others. It would promote the SkillBridge program to their networks of employers and recently separated servicemembers.
The proposed legislation — Senate Bill 586 and House Bill 435 — would put Veterans Florida in charge of helping businesses and servicemembers apply to SkillBridge, said Joe Marino, executive director of Veterans Florida. The state already gives the nonprofit $2 million a year to promote the state as a top place for veterans to live, so this would be an extension of that role and cost the state no more money, Marino said.
“Employers are familiar with the high school and technical college pipeline. They’re familiar with the college pipeline,” Marino said. “But we’re trying to ask employers to view this as an additional pipeline of already skilled and trained potential team members, who may just need additional training to get the right certification for their industry.”
Employers eligible to offer training through the SkillBridge program vary from aerospace and defense technology companies to construction firms, Marino added.
The SkillBridge program’s goal of facilitating servicemembers’ entry into the skilled labor market falls in line with the Florida Chamber of Commerce’s 2030 plan to be a top-five manufacturing state and a top-three state for technology jobs, said Matthew Choy, policy director for the Chamber.
“And that simply can’t happen without the addition of our exiting servicemen and women,” he said.
In surveys of its more than 700 member companies, the Florida Chamber found that talent supply was a top issue, Choy said. Given that servicemembers tend to stay in the state where they were last stationed, the Chamber hopes to make sure Florida doesn’t lose that talent.
“We have 371,000 jobs open in Florida and 614,000 people looking for jobs,” said Mark Wilson, the Chamber’s president and chief executive in a statement. “To bridge that gap, Florida is investing in and upskilling its transitioning servicemembers with new credentials and matching the skilled talent to the corporate needs in Florida.”
About 5,000 to 15,000 servicemembers get out each year in Florida, Marino said.
The program also would help address veteran unemployment. The national seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of veterans peaked last year at 11.9 percent in April. It’s gone down since then, coming in at 4.9 percent last month, slightly lower than the non-veteran rate of 6.3 percent.
Fishback recommends the SkillBridge program to everyone eligible. He knows firsthand of the false expectation that servicemembers can easily find civilian jobs just because of their military experience.
“If you have the time, plan to do an internship and apply,” he said. “Focus on the area you want to focus on, but do apply, because it sets you up both professionally and personally to effectively transition into a new lifestyle for you and your family.”