Meeting on the 11th floor of the Wells Fargo building, John Andrews looked out over the Norfolk skyline and recalled his 30 years in the US Navy flying the E-2C Hawkeye. He found himself in his current role leading Norfolk’s Veteran’s Services and Military Affairs through a series of unexpected events. After trying to retire from the Navy four years ago and being told “no,” he found himself assigned to an Army unit in SW Asia before ending his career running a think tank for Admiral John C. Harvey at United States Fleet Forces Command. This exposure to a seasoned executive shaped John’s outlook and expectations of his role outside the Navy.
John recounts his own experience trying to determine what career path he might take after the Navy when he sat in front of a computer for a week and realized he “was no better off than when he started” for determining what path he should take. When a friend approached him about the City of Norfolk position he learned everything he could about interviewing from YouTube, the day before the interview.
Having been in the role since April of 2012, John has learned he’s not alone in the uncertainty that looms over our local service men and women transitioning to the market. His marching orders are simple, “make Norfolk the most veteran friendly city in the nation, after the City learned they’d been ranked 2nd behind Oklahoma City in a USAA poll.” However, after attacking this end state , he found himself on the outside looking in when he set out to interface with the military’s transition teams.
John is passionate about the high caliber of American’s serving in today’s military and that while “they’re not all saved and anointed, they do recognize there are consequences” to their behaviors. “Only 1 in 5 high school graduates have the pre-requisites to be accepted into the military and they possess the aptitude and emotional maturity to bring value to our community. And that’s essential to bringing industry and the military together to make our community better.” John grew up in Virginia Beach, and is personal friends with several of Norfolk’s most successful companies, and he knows firsthand that they’re struggling with “a 50% attrition rate” of their trained workforce, because some of these workers lack the self-discipline “to come to work every day.”
I asked, “if both sides are trying to help the service member, is it working,” John passionately explains how “it can be better.” John states “I don’t have a budget, and it’s just me, and my most effective tactic is to try and pull together the various organizations that work towards the support of a veteran’s transition.” He laments that while many educational institutions and training organizations are attracting veterans, who pay for their training with the GI Bill, the programs they’re offering are not necessarily the best path to help the veterans find a job.
When asked how the VSRA can share forecast of job requirements with the Navy John corrects me, saying “not the Navy. They’re warfighters and transitioning service members is not their mission.” “They don’t have the time or money to focus on that. The Army is the one organization that does through its program called Soldier for Life. On the day the soldier starts his career, they begin prepping him to develop a plan and skillset to return to the market.” “Over 300,000 service members transition to their communities each year and this is a commodity of human capital that should be developed and utilized.”
John wants a “brick and mortar place so individuals can come and find what’s available for them to support their family, and start an education process now to prepare and start the process.” “The Army calls it a smooth landing.”
When discussing how the VSRA can communicate its requirements I shared some of the recent recruiting survey. John chuckled and sighed when he looked at question 3 of the VSRA survey asking the members “which employment programs have you worked with.” “If you put hero and hire in a search engine you’ll get thousands of results saying they’re there to help the veterans.” “The city of Norfolk hired 260 veterans this year.” “But veterans read a job description and immediately think they’re not qualified, because of how they’re written.” “I think the VSRA has a good product, starting at $42,000 a year. Potential to make six figures. Can you raise a family, buy a house, and have a retirement?, Yes. Is that attractive to a lot of people out there, yea, and that needs to be marketed. Sending out to these websites is not effective.” How do we market it? "I’m working on that, and I think it has to be a public private partnership between vetted companies and DoD, so we can have access to your folks and tell our story (meaning the VSRAs story.)” What do you think the response will be? “I know it will be good.” “People are starting to have their eyes opened.”
John grades the DoD transition programs severely because of their inability to prepare a transitioning veteran for the realities of the workforce. “In the last effort to make these better, they’ve made it worse, by removing the local employer’s panel.” John is concerned that “many of the organizations that assist transitioning service members are well intentioned, but because they provide a wider spectrum of social services, the person coming out of the military is going to think they don’t belong in that line.” He points to Goodwill as a successful program for helping people to get a job and “they want to expand into the veteran program. They’ve offered staff to help in the veterans program and we just need a building.” He is working on several complex reinvestment grants for the space and when asked why you don’t locate this program on the Navy base where there is ample office space, he explains “in a perfect world that’s where it belongs, but the legal implications are insurmountable.”
What can the companies in the VSRA do to help retain more service members? John explains the challenge to keeping service members local boils down to communication and networking. “The VSRA needs to communicate to that population on the base that there are living wage jobs available right here, and you can support a family, you can buy a house, and you can have a good retirement.” How does the VSRA tell their story? Where do we go on base to tell the story? “RADM Dixon Smith, the Regional Installation Commander, and the transition program that he runs would be the best place to start.. The VSRA is perfectly positioned to create that message and take it to the program.” He shares that at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washinton state, there are pilot programs allowing associations like VSRA to offer apprentice programs on base and he is finding out how they did it.
I asked for “saved rounds or elevator pitch?” And John said, “the ship repair average age is 56, and you can’t meet your workforce requirement locally, and you have 15,000 transition locally out of active military service each year. They’re quality employees. You need to communicate what you have and facilitate their transition process. Determine and develop the training required and market your product to that pool of human capital.”
Marcus Boggs is a government contract specialist with Wells Fargo Bank in Norfolk