The Florida Chamber of Commerce and Veterans Florida want to boost business participation in a federal program that helps military veterans transition to the private sector — and bring their skills with them.
The two organizations announced a coalition Tuesday to encourage businesses and exiting servicemembers to enroll in SkillBridge, a federally funded program that connects veterans in the last six months of service with job training, apprenticeship and internship opportunities in the private sector.
Florida Chamber President and CEO Mark Wilson said the program could accelerate the state’s economic rebound, help the state hit the benchmarks outlined in the Chamber’s Florida 2030 blueprint and some of the 614,000 Floridians looking for work get the skills needed to fill the 371,000 job openings in the state.
“The Florida chamber has set workforce specific goals, and we want to be one of the top five states in America for manufacturing jobs. That means we have to add about 200,000 manufacturing jobs over the next decade. We also want to be top three states for technology jobs,” Wilson said. “Programs like SkillBridge will help us reach these goals as we create new jobs and fill them with the talent that SkillBridge will help us create.”
Veterans Florida Executive Director Joe Marino said the program would help keep service members in Florida after they transition to civilian life and could entice more to move to the Sunshine State, all without state dollars.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for the state to take the lead without having to recreate the wheel. We’ve seen other states start to do this, but we believe Florida can do it better,” he said. “Really, the mission of the SkillBridge initiative is to train, retain and attract the veteran workforce of tomorrow and maintain Florida’s competitive edge by creating a talent pipeline to fuel the state’s economic growth.”
Retired U.S. Army Col. Derrick Fishback said the program was key to his post-military success — through SkillBridge, he landed an internship working on IBM’s Watson AI which prepared him for his current job as an Amazon Web Services’ engagement manager.
However, Fishback, who was stationed in Pensacola, had to go to Atlanta for the training because there were no SkillBridge opportunities in Florida.
“I think it’s important that the state of Florida does support it and does identify itself as an entity that that’s helping the veteran effectively transition, whether they stay in Florida or not,” he said.
“Here’s the reason why: That individual has more skills and more training, initially, by the time they’re 21, than most kids have when they transition to a normal job, and so the transition path is easier over the period of time to actually work for an employer. And so that person becomes a very employable and very utilized leader within a corporation that exists within the major economic engines that we have here in Florida.”
Business engagement is important, but it’s only half of the equation. Service members must choose to enroll. As a SkillBridge alumnus, Fisher advised service members to “just do it.”
“You can’t just go from doing 10 to 20 years of service like I did — I retired with 30 years of service — and just jump out there cold turkey hoping something’s going to happen. I think it’s a great way to transition yourself mentally, and personally into being a much more valuable asset for any employer, but also for yourself and for your family. It helps. It’s available to all the services. But what I’ve discovered is that most don’t know about it, or most don’t take advantage of it.” he said.
“Unless you have a very specific skill set that industry is willing to take right off the bat. Unless you’re a pilot or a nuclear engineer, it’s a struggle, especially in today’s changing economy. Four years ago, you had options, and you had time. Now, you need every everything you can to put yourself in a position to win.”
There’s a legislative component to the push. Bills sponsored by Sen. Tom Wright and Rep. Tyler Sirois (SB 586/HB 435) would make Veterans Florida the state’s principal assistance organization for SkillBridge. The bills direct the organization to establish SkillBridge certification, promote the program to businesses and servicemembers, help businesses get approved to offer training, and match them with exiting servicemembers.
“The numbers of the veterans that are in the state has already spoken for itself,” Wright said. And as a member of the Senate from District 14 where the space arena is located we are trying to work with all of our educators to produce better STEM-trained individuals, and what better individuals would there be then those veterans that we already have?” Wright said.