U.S. Army veteran Mary Pratt knows the exact day she came to the Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training in Baltimore.
On March 24, 2016, after the end of an 8-year marriage and having just lost her job, she came to the center in need. A recovering drug addict, Pratt is now a full-time student studying to obtain her master’s degree in social work at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
“Social workers helped me get here, having empathy and having lived through a lot of dark places, to overcome that,” she said. “If I did not have MCVET I probably would have used again.”
Pratt’s is just one of the many success stories that come out of the nonprofit. And it’s part of a larger story across the state, one which has seen the jobless rate among veterans plunge well below the state and national average as a result of a concerted effort by job-placement agencies and private employers.
Marine veteran Lacey Reid arrived at the center just six months ago. He now manages the first platoon, the first stop for veterans who come to the center. He’s aiming for a career supporting fellow veterans in the Department of Veterans Affairs, he said.
The center, an emergency transitional facility for homeless veterans and veterans in need, has placed over 100 in jobs over the last year, said program coordinator and Navy veteran Stephanie Wiggins. It’s part of the improving picture of veterans employment rate in the state.
Through partnerships with employers, vocational schools and universities, the 24-year-old center connects veterans with the training they need to find a job that works for them, all while giving them a roof over their heads and free meals. Veterans can find donated clothes in the laundry room, which they refer to as the “MCVET Mall,” attend training courses and ultimately find a job through in-house specialists. The program offers them housing with gradual levels of independence, from the free first platoon barracks to single occupancy residences, at which they pay 30 percent of their income.
“Everything is under one umbrella,” said MCVET director of development Cereta Spencer.
Veterans are kept busy, too. They wake up at about 5 a.m. and work to maintain the facility and take job-training classes until the evening. Midday walks through the facility find it empty, the barracks spotlessly vacant. This, Spencer, said, sets them apart from other programs in the state.
Maryland’s veterans unemployment has descended from 7.2 percent in 2015 to 3.8 percent in 2016, below the national average of 4.3 percent. Still, 44 percent of veterans in a 2016 U.S. Chamber of Commerce study left their first civilian job within one year. At MCVET, veterans stay at their first job for at least nine months 77 percent of the time, Wiggins said.
“We won’t be satisfied with finding a job for job’s sake,” said MCVET executive director Jeffery Kendrick, an Air Force veteran.
He said MCVET focuses on sustainable jobs like installing electric car chargers and solar panels, which some veterans have been trained to do at the center.
Disabled veterans outreach program specialist Feleisa Thompson, who works at the in-house American Jobs Center, said she is able to help veterans get hired thanks to the “countless” job fairs she attends statewide.
“Job fairs don’t work for veterans, job fairs work for people like me,” the Army veteran said, adding that having an intermediary is key for veterans.
Too often, she said, Baltimore employers don’t realize that there are many veterans right in their backyard, and hire from nearby Baltimore County or Washington.
“It’s kind of like a bait and switch,” Thompson said. “We have all these veterans. Why aren’t you hiring them?”
Programs grow relationships
Maryland businesses are getting better when it comes to hiring veterans, said LeRoy Thomas, the veterans program manager for the state’s Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.
“We really have improved tremendously. When I took this position, Maryland was at the highest veteran’s unemployment in the nation,” Thomas said.
With a 3.4 percent decrease in just one year, the question becomes: Why the sharp decline? It’s all about communication, said Dana Hendrickson, the outreach and advocacy director of Operation Hire Maryland, which works within the Department of Veterans Affairs to encourage employers to hire veterans and connect them to the resources to do so.
“A few years ago … there wasn’t quite the communication that has been built out at this point where I can reach out to Fort Meade or Fort Detrick,” she said.” A conversation has been sparked, and as a result, partnerships have been built.”
Operation Hire was launched in 2015, after, a 2014 hiring challenge prompted increased interest from employers, Hendrickson said.
Since then, it’s held several training sessions and networking events for employers looking to hire veterans, arming them with the best practices for recruitment and retention. The group has attended job fairs at military bases in the state, and refers employers to transition teams set up at the bases.
According to the Annual Report on the Maryland Workforce Investment Act released in October of 2016, Maryland’s workforce system provided services to 7,221 military veterans and assisted 3,116 veterans in obtaining employment.
There are 31 American Job Centers across the state, like the one housed in MCVET, at which veterans are given priority access to employment, training and placement services.
“There are still a lot of businesses that do not know that Maryland workforce centers exist,” he said, adding that his department is trying to get the word out.
Thomas said veterans make for assets in the workplace.
“The retention rate for veterans is very high because they come in already with a work ethic. They’re known to be on time because of their military discipline,” Thomas said. “They come in with a plethora of skills.”
Employers noted these skills in the 2016 Chamber of Commerce study — 86 percent of employers surveyed thought veterans were “disciplined,” 77 percent considered them “punctual or timely” and 67 percent thought veterans made good “team players.”
Business group builds bridges
The Chamber of Commerce survey found that veterans are now a top three priority for employers, behind only those with higher education and women.
The study noted that while the nation has seen significant improvement in the veterans unemployment rate, many veterans don’t end up with the right jobs — ones that engage them and maximize their skill sets.
The Chamber of Commerce’s Hiring our Heroes Corporate Fellowship Program was started in 2015 to ease veterans into careers with greater upward mobility, said Marady Leary, the program’s director.
The program has served about 500 veterans nationally, she said, and has placed 82 percent of them in managerial jobs with an average salary of $70,000. Ninety-two percent of the fellows who are placed into employment through the program remained at their job for at least six months.
The program places veterans in a fellowship program matching their interests while they still have 180 days left of military service. The program is free to businesses, Leary said.
“When the companies had them come in and work they realized, ‘Wow these veterans have skills and abilities we didn’t even know about,’” she said.
For Army veteran Alen Schulze, the corporate fellowship program made his transition from the military to the civilian workforce smooth. The program matched him with Banner University Medical Center. After his fellowship concluded, he was offered a job created for him, which drew on his experiences in the Army and his studies regarding information technology and human resources.
“I signed out for my retirement transition on a Friday and started working at my new job on a Monday,” he said, adding that his transition was “fantastic.”
While there are still some stigmas surrounding veterans and post-traumatic stress that could act as a barrier to employment, he said, the nation is doing well when it comes to employing veterans.
“If you look at the different programs we have across the country … I would say that our nation as a whole doing is much as they can [to hire veterans],” he said.