Career centers give veterans a fighting chance at jobs

MARYSVILLE — At the Armed Forces Reserve Center here on Wednesday, dozens of people lined up to enter the conference rooms set aside for the Snohomish County Regional Job and Resource Fair.

While open to everyone, the event was designed with military veterans in mind, from the choice of venue to the event’s promotion, to the kinds of employers and other organizations that took part. Several police departments, community colleges and staffing agencies were there.

Among the job-seekers was Ron Noel, who left the Navy a year ago after a 16-year career with the service.

Noel worked in logistics and supply chain and inventory management, and that’s the kind of work he’s been looking for since leaving the Navy.

He’s been going back to school at Everett Community College and hopes to pursue a master’s degree in social work. He’s kept abreast of new opportunities like the job fair through WorkSource Snohomish County’s Serve Center.

WorkSource, the state’s employment portal, joined the Fleet and Family Support Center at Naval Station Everett and the Armed Forces Reserve Center in Marysville to put on the job fair, now in its fourth year.

The Serve Center is WorkSource’s dedicated office in Everett for veterans and their families, pairing job searches with other services such as housing or health care.

The Serve Center turns a year old Nov. 13, and the first year has seen more than 460 veterans and family members come through its doors.

“The purpose of it was basically to have a one-stop location for veterans and their family members where they can come in and get whatever resources they need,” said James Lapsley, the local veterans employment representative for WorkSource Snohomish County.

It’s the only WorkSource office that specifically targets veterans. It is also one of the few one-stop locations for veterans services in the state, the other being RallyPoint/6 near Joint Base Lewis-McChord, which was established by the veterans group The Unfinished Mission.

Lapsley’s office has a full-time staff of two. Since the Serve Center opened, they’ve added more computers for job-seekers, embedded a part-time representative at Naval Station Everett and have seen an average of 42 clients per month.

“The Serve Center has helped me out tremendously, with the constant contact and follow-up, the leads they’ve looked for,” Noel said.

With U.S. military forces drawing down, Lapsley hopes the Serve Center will be able to move soon into a larger office to handle more veterans and provide space for more partner agencies.

“The need is there, it’s just a matter of being able to accommodate,” Lapsley said.

In keeping with the office’s mandate to provide a one-stop shop for services, other organizations rotate staff into the office for days or weeks at a time.

Those other organizations are able to help veterans with housing, health care or counseling. The nonprofits include Catholic Community Services, Volunteers of America and the YWCA. Government participants include the Snohomish County Veterans Assistance Program, HUD-VASH (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Administration Supportive Housing program) and the U.S. Department of Labor’s Workforce Investment Act and Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program.

“We can literally take a veteran from our desk to the next desk for whatever they need,” Lapsley said.

Even for organizations that aren’t collocating at the Serve Center, the human services field is built on relationships. Lapsley often knows who would best serve a veteran’s needs, whether it’s work, housing, health care, treatment or something else.

“A lot of us, we’re all veteran representatives, we all network together,” said Shawn Baza, the manager of the Everett Veterans Center, which is part of the Veterans Administration.

The Veterans Center sees a lot of foot traffic from both veterans and active-duty personnel who will soon be leaving the service, Baza said.

For physical or mental health needs, the VA is still a first port of call for many veterans.

But not all veterans think to enroll in the VA, or know what benefits they may be entitled to.

Having a VA representative at the Serve Center is helpful, Lapsley said, because vets might not develop service-related health issues until years after leaving the military.

“Often we uncover things that could potentially establish a disability claim,” he said.

And yet, one of the biggest challenges vets face when they leave the military is simply not being prepared for civilian life, Lapsley said.

Vets who have been fighting overseas might come back to the U.S. and find they don’t understand the civilian labor market, but having faced tough situations on deployment, they don’t think to ask for help until they’re in a precarious situation.

“They figure they’ll try it out on their own, not realizing how difficult it is to find a job,” Lapsley said.

At the job fair, Jamaal Mazen was talking with recruiters from a variety of companies, including Boeing and Microsoft. A former Navy intelligence analyst, Mazen was looking to line up work in data analysis, or at least to make some good contacts in the business world.

When he left the Navy in January after eight years, he initially looked for work on the East Coast, but after six months he’d come up dry.

“I’d exhausted the resources I had to stay in place,” Mazen said. “People aren’t snapping you up as fast as you’d assumed you would be.”

Now living in Lake Stevens, Mazen worked the room, a bit more optimistic.

One of the people he talked to was Brad Nelson, the military program liaison for Volt Workforce Solutions, a large staffing and contracting firm.

“I do a lot of marketing out at these career fairs,” said Nelson, who is retired from the Air Force and teaches résumé writing and interview skills to local National Guard groups.

Lapsley said that 450 people attended the job fair, the second-biggest attendance since WorkSource started holding military-targeted fairs in 2010.

About 200 of the attendees were veterans, Lapsley said, which is a typical percentage at the fairs.

Even vets who have been out of the service for a while found the job fair and other services at the Serve Center useful.

“It’s overwhelming as far as requirements go to get a job that pays enough to survive,” said Heather Slater, who left the Navy in 2009 and has been working for Pioneer Human Services at a group home for juvenile sex offenders.

Slater, a single mother, has been trying to advance her career and has found the job hunt tough going the past six months. But she was able to make some contacts at the job fair last week, including a promising lead at the state Department of Social and Health Services booth.

“They took my number,” Slater said.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; Twitter: @Chris_At_Herald.

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