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West Kentucky WANTS YOU!

By DAVID ZOELLER dzoeller@paducahsun.com

Paducah employers looking for a few good men - and women - to add to their workforce have another source of veteran leadership available to them they may not have considered.

That may change following a presentation by state officials at a recent Paducah Area Chamber of Commerce Power in Partnership Breakfast. The comments focused on Kentucky's efforts to enhance its economic development efforts through a skilled workforce that includes transitioning veterans out of Fort Campbell.

Sandra Wilson, chamber president, said the business community is very interested in the opportunity to add transitioning soldiers into the workforce.

"We all want to make this happen and make this a real focus for us and our community," she said.

Col. Blaine Hedges is executive director of the Kentucky Commission on Military Affairs.

"There are 400 soldiers transitioning monthly out of Fort Campbell, (nearly) 5,000 a year, and I've heard we've got a challenge sometimes filling some critical skills here in our workforce," said Hedges.

"The big picture is we can maximize the potential of our transitioning men and women veterans. We can put them to work in the commonwealth."

Both Hedges and Josh Benton, executive director of workforce development for the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development, emphasized how the business community can benefit from utilizing the skills of veterans making the transition from active duty to the civilian workforce.

"The No. 1 reason companies expand or locate (in a community) has to do with workforce," said Benton. "It's not necessarily incentives, infrastructure, utilities ... but the availability of quality people who are ready and willing to go to work."

Transitioning soldiers bring a lot of transferable skills to the workforce, Hedges said.

"They are extremely adaptable," he said. "They're going to show up to work on time, they're going to be drug-free. They understand leadership, and it is truly a quality pool that I recommend everybody recruit out of."

The Cabinet for Economic Development is involved in everything related to workforce development from recruiting businesses to locate in Kentucky to helping existing ones expand, according to Benton.

"The availability of a skilled workforce continues to be critical to economic growth in Kentucky," Benton said. "Veterans, transitioning soldiers, and their families play a critical role in keeping our workforce strong -- today and in the future."

Community collaboration is critical in working with the transitioning soldier population. Fort Campbell has a variety of transition and training programs, according to Benton, and hiring events throughout the year continue to be a focus.

"Typically, these events bring in 1,000-1,500 soldiers who are actively looking for employment," according to Benton. "The general expectations for employers who participate in these events are that they have at least 15 open jobs and the jobs offered start at a minimum of $15 per hour."

"Companies that come in thinking they can just hire these soldiers at entry-level job are not going to have any success because these are not people that are entry level. They have experience."

In coaching sessions with soldiers, "we're trying to help translate what skills they have into what skills they can market and will make sense to employers when they are interviewing them is a key factor," Benton said.

"About 30 percent of those transitioning soldiers (Fort Campbell) are really skilled in manufacturing, then about 30 percent in health care and about 20 percent in business and IT," Benton said. "And then you get into construction and transportation skills."

Benton and Hedges agree matching the soldiers' skills with the skills needed by employers is a key issue. "A lot of this struggle with finding people revolves around marketing," Benton said. "It's telling the story of what the Army does. Being able to tell their (soldiers') story of success."

According to Hedges, there is something Kentucky, particularly west Kentucky, can do to help entice transitioning soldiers to stay in the state.

"From a marketing standpoint ... think about what the Army and Marines do," he said. "They're constantly in the woods. You guys (west Kentucky employers) are in a phenomenal area for outdoor enthusiasts like myself. I would not lose sight of that with the folks that you are recruiting from."

According to Brian Lambert, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' Veteran Experience Team, prospective employers have to do more than just offer transitioning soldiers a paycheck.

"First of all, don't think just because you offer money you're going to get a soldier," he said. "Fifteen dollars an hour, that's great, but you've got to sell the company. If you're passionate about your company and you explain to somebody what their future with your company could be, you're going to get that soldier no matter what you offer.

"It's not about the money. If it was about the money they never would have been a soldier," Lambert said.

Beth Lamb, a MyVA field consultant for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, offered prospective employers another important reminder.

"A survey I did for McCracken County and the five surrounding counties shows that you're losing (transitioning) men as your veterans population, but you're gaining women veterans and it's a significant jump.

"So while you're marketing and thinking about your veterans, don't forget the ladies are out there and they are the highest growing population of veterans that are coming out."

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