FORT HOOD, Texas — Each year about 11,000 soldiers depart the post at Fort Hood, stepping back into the civilian life and the private workforce.
Some have little trouble transitioning into jobs. Others tap their GI Bill benefits, head to college and pursue a degree.
Yet many of them stumble over the first few steps off-post. The skills they picked up in the military often don't translate well to corporate America, and many return to hometowns with few opportunities.
So Col. Matt Elledge has set himself a lofty goal: to help every one of Fort Hood's transitioning soldiers line up a job or a slot in school before they leave the Army. It's an impossible target, he admits, but that hasn't stopped him from trying.
Elledge, the garrison commander, has launched four new initiatives to help smooth the path between military service and the civilian workforce. Last month, he met with members of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce to pitch one of those efforts — a program that will place soldiers, mostly officers, with local companies for intensive, 13-week fellowship programs.
"It's kind of like test-driving a new car," Elledge said of the Heroes Corporate Fellowship Academy. "If we can get the transitioning soldier into a company, they'll like what that soldier brings to the table."
The program asks that companies give the soldiers legitimate projects to manage — to help them absorb the requirements of the business world, but also to give them a chance to prove their mettle in a live scenario. The hope is that participating companies hire the soldiers after their fellowships.
"Quite frankly," Elledge told the Austin American-Statesman, "we just want them to allow access into their companies, because we believe our soldiers will sell themselves."
The fellowship program is one of four new career-training programs Elledge and his colleagues at Fort Hood have created — all part of the Army's broader Soldier for Life Transition Assistance Program, which aims to "facilitate successful reintegration" of soldiers and their families into the civilian community.
In partnership with private companies, the programs provide job training in several careers. The courses are timed to coincide with a soldier's transition back to civilian life, and each offers a high likelihood of job placement.
The Shifting Gears program sponsored by General Motors teaches automotive skills and tries to match participants with dealerships around the country. SAP provides a software training program. Veterans in Piping teaches key pipe-fitting and welding skills.
These and similar programs have popped up at Army posts around the country, said Martin Traylor, transition services manager at Fort Hood, which has about 41,000 soldiers.
"This is kind of the direction that transition is going within the Army, because there's more of a tie directly to employment with it," Traylor said.
For now, the programs are limited, especially when compared with the volume of soldiers who cycle out of the military through Fort Hood each year. Even when up to speed, Traylor said, these four programs combined will have room for about 400 participants a year.
"When you compare what we're pushing through career skills to what's actually coming out, there's a significant (gap) there," Traylor said. "That's the reason we believe there's so much room for expansion in this career skills area."
The key to expanding these career-training programs lies outside the fences that surround Fort Hood. Without enough space or resources to expand on post, Fort Hood leaders have forged partnerships with Central Texas College in Killeen and have looked to build deeper ties with the vibrant business community in Austin.
"There's not a lack of interest," Traylor said, "quite the inverse from the private sector."
But for all the efforts by the military and the private sector, these and other job-training efforts miss thousands of soldiers. And that number is growing as the thousands of veterans from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan cycle out of the military.
"It's just a shotgun effect right now," said Mike Starich, the Austin-based president of Orion International, a recruiting and job placement firm that works with military professionals. "It's frustrating to veterans."
Soldiers with technical and management skills tend to fare best as they enter the private workforce, Starich said. But soldiers with fewer key skills might attend multiple job fairs on base and find few, good-paying options available to them.
"Salary expectations are higher than many companies are willing to pay," he said. "Sometimes military individuals see these jobs at the Wal-Marts of the world or retail jobs as lower paying and they say, 'I'm better off taking the GI Bill and going to school or taking unemployment.'"
Even for soldiers who received technical training, translating their military-based skills into the private world can prove difficult. The military and corporate America speak different languages, and many business managers don't have a clear understanding of the skills a veteran can bring to a firm.
"I think we needed to do a better job from the military's standpoint to make sure the corporate world understands what soldiers bring to the table," Elledge said. "We're getting better at telling that story."
More Central Texas companies are hearing that story, too.
Given the Austin area's growing economy and its rapid job and population growth, Elledge and others at Fort Hood see the metro area as a prime landing spot for transitioning veterans. They established joint programs with the Austin chamber, work with several job-training organizations and bring local business leaders on post for job fairs and "a day in the life of a soldier" events.
Leaders from eight local businesses met with Elledge last month for a primer on the new fellowship program. Fort Hood is gathering candidates now, and as many as 30 officers could be working at Austin-area companies by the end of the summer.
One likely will end up working for Shaun Cranston, senior vice president at Brookfield Residential, which has three developments in the metro area. About 10 percent of Brookfield's local employees are veterans, Cranston said.
"I feel we, as a civilian world, have a moral obligation," he said. "These are people who put their life on line to serve our country to take care of us while we were living our lives here locally . We have an obligation to make sure they're productive beyond their military life."
For Brookfield, the specific hard skills a veteran brings to the company don't matter. Give Cranston a candidate with a solid set of soft skills — the sort of work ethic, adaptability and commitment the military instills in most soldiers — and he'll fill in the missing pieces.
Yet for many employers, particularly in manufacturing, high-tech and other middle- to upper-wage job providers, a set of specific hard skills are prerequisites. As a Boeing executive once put it: "We hire for hard skills. We fire for soft skills."
For most of its positions, Austin-based Blackbaud requires deep coding and software-development expertise, a specific skill set that few veterans possess when they leave the military. But soft skills still matter, said Kathy Marshall, even at a company that specializes in developing software for nonprofits.
Marshall, one of Blackbaud's human resources managers, hopes to find fellowship program participants who can work in the firm's customer support and sales operations. Soft skills still matter, she said, sometimes more than hard skills.
"The military are getting really, really bright at teaching their transitioning personnel on how to write their resume the right way, to get on LinkedIn and start building their network and using the startup vernacular when they talk to employers," she said. "The only thing that would inhibit any employer is a skill gap."
Elledge and his colleagues at Fort Hood and throughout the armed forces hope to start filling that gap. But in the meantime, a range of private organizations and schools have zeroed in on providing technical and other hard skills.
Austin Community College, for example, offers a training program in 14 high-demand technology fields, including network administration, information security and mobile application development. It's free for veterans, funded by a $1.1 million grant from the Texas Workforce Commission.
And then there's Skillpoint Alliance, which picks up the slack where many of the military and private sector efforts end. Skillpoint offers job training courses for virtually anyone, including dishonorably discharged soldiers and veterans convicted of crimes — people who no longer qualify for most military benefits and aid.
"There's a broad spectrum of support out there," said Orion International's Starich. "But it all boils down to giving the person the skill sets to get a decent-paying job they'll be motivated to take instead of just accepting."