Back in Service
Career and training services for Southwest Florida veterans are on the rise.
JORDAN HESS, 25, OF FORT MYERS, had performed two tours of duty as an infantry rifleman in the Marine Corps—in Afghanistan and Romania—when he wrapped up his military service and separated in May 2015. He returned to the U.S. and tried to get a job as an e-cigarette retailer, a job he had held previously. But no one was hiring. He tried for a restaurant job, city work, even toll-booth operator, but had no luck. “I was unemployed for three months,” he says. “It was rough.”
And Hess was not alone. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, veteran unemployment in 2015 ranged from 1.9 percent in Iowa to 7.7 percent in the District of Columbia. Florida, at 5.4 percent, was slightly below the 2015 national average for veterans (5.8 percent), and slightly above the statewide general unemployment rate of 5.1 percent.
Hess heard about a program called Disabled Veterans Insurance Careers (now part of the National Alliance for Insurance Education and Research) that would train him for a career in insurance. The job sounded solid and satisfying to him, so Hess proceeded with the 14-week training. Because it included self-paced online teaching, webinars and podcasts, the training could be done from anywhere.
Gary Bryant, director of the national alliance’s Careers for Life program and himself a veteran, explains that there are quality career opportunities in the insurance industry. Grads are matched up with employers to get mentoring and on-the-job experience when the training is over, he says, adding that 18 vets have been trained since the program began in 2014.
Hess says the program turned his life around. “I didn’t know how I was going to make ends meet,” he says. He’s now working in sales for RTI Insurance Services, out of its Fort Myers office. (Meniscus injuries make it necessary for him to move around frequently, and hearing loss on one side can sometimes limit him.) He’s happy to find himself in the insurance industry. “No matter what your strengths are, there’s a role for you in this industry,” he says.
“We believe that those who’ve served our country should not ever be left behind on the battlefield,” Bryant goes on to say. “But we also feel they should not be left behind when it comes to having a meaningful career opportunity when they get home.”
A larger program designed to put more veterans to work and increase the competitiveness of Florida businesses is Veterans Florida, created by the state legislature in 2014. “It helps veterans connect to employment or start their own businesses in the state of Florida,” says Executive Director Bobby Carbonell.
An innovative part of the multi-pronged Veterans Florida initiative is a Business Training Grants program. Under this program, businesses are eligible for grants that will pay for them to train veteran-employees, up to $8,000 per veteran.
“A lot of effort in the past has been put into people going to school and learning a skill, then we help them find jobs,” says Carbonell. But if the skill is not in demand, that doesn’t always work, he says.
With this grant, a business determines its needs, hires veterans to fill the jobs, “then puts them through whatever training they need to make them a productive worker,” Carbonell says. The company can then get reimbursed for 50 percent of the cost of the training, up to $8,000 per veteran. The program, which has been running for about five months, has facilitated 51 veteran hires thus far. Southwest Florida companies that have taken advantage of the program include Cheney Brothers in Punta Gorda, Altair Training Solutions in Immokalee, Dreamware in Bonita Springs and First Family Insurance in Fort Myers.
VeteransFlorida.com also offers a career portal where vets can search for jobs, and employers can register then post jobs for free to a veterans-only audience.
Another program underway is Veterans Florida Entrepreneurship. Last year was the initial run for this program, which implements trainings for veterans who wish to start their own businesses. Currently, the trainings are at five universities around the state—Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU), Florida Atlantic University, University of West Florida, University of North Florida and Hillsborough Community College— with expansion into two more—Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) and University of Central Florida (UCF)—next year. FGCU’s program had a terrifically successful first year.
FGCU ENTREPRENEURSHIP PROGRAM
Korinne Hill, 52, of Port Charlotte, who served in the Navy for nearly nine years in the 1990s, could see the writing on the wall. She had been working at a large high-tech firm and had a feeling she was going to be let go. In the back of her head was her dream business—doing alterations and making custom clothing. To start in that direction, she got a job at a fabric store and enrolled in an entrepreneurship training program. “I just wanted to write a business plan,” she says. But that program was too self-directed and, she says, “overwhelming—the financials, the customer base ... I had absolutely no idea how to begin. So that never went anywhere.”
Within a few months, the fabric store closed, and Hill found herself jobless again for the second time in a year. That’s when she heard about the Veterans Florida Entrepreneurship Program at FGCU. She enrolled. “If nothing else,” she thought, “it will help me get the business plan done.” But that wasn’t what she learned at FGCU. “There was a whole paradigm shift,” she says. “I learned that that’s not the way businesses are started now. You find out what the customers want first and then you build the business around that.” Another key difference Hill found at FGCU was all the support she got. “I didn’t feel like I was trying to do it by myself,” she says.
Far from it. Students in the FGCU Entrepreneurship program have access to a rich supply of mentors, skill trainings, and fellow-students to learn from. The driving force behind the program is Sandy Kauanui, director of the FGCU Institute for Entrepreneurship. She developed the curriculum, which is used by all seven Florida universities taking part in the program. (Veterans wanting to attend FGCU, Hodges University or Florida SouthWestern State College are invited to use their GI Bill to attend standard classes, which is a different track from this program. All three schools have services to help veterans adjust to student life.)
An important principle Kauanui, an experienced entrepreneur herself, wanted to get across in the training is that of the “lean startup approach” that Hill referenced. “The idea is to get a minimum viable product out there,” Kauanui says. “Test it and see if it will go to market. Go talk to cus- tomers and find out what they want.
Tweak the product if you need to—in the right direction. This way you have something that works and you don’t go bankrupt in the process.”
The program has three phases, at no cost to the veteran: seven weeks of online entrepreneurship training that teaches skills such as accounting and marketing, three weekends of in-person consultations with business experts and mentors from the business world, and ongoing guidance from FGCU staff and mentors. “The engagement with mentors and investors is key,” says Kauanui. “It takes someone a lot farther than just giving them information.”
Kauanui and her staff also managed to raise more than $100,000 from the Southwest Foundation and the Schulze Foundation for seed money for the budding entrepreneurs’ companies. When the training was over, the program held
a “compassionate shark tank” competition. All 33 students competed, and the two winners—who were assessed as having the most viable products or services—were awarded seed money. The winner, Stephen Berge, runs Bravo Materials Inc., a material supply company. The silver went to Cindy Latsko and her OnSiteRN, a company that helps patients use complicated medical equipment at home.
“Seed money is something the state can’t provide in its grant,” says Kauanui, “but we have this terrific community in southwest Florida that can.”
The FGCU Veteran’s Florida Entrepreneurship Program will continue in 2017 and, like a good entrepreneur, Kauanui will modify it as she goes. Veterans can apply now for January at entrepreneur.veteransflorida.org. One thing that won’t change is the high quality of the training.
Kauanui sums up her feelings after the initiative’s first year: “Veterans have great potential for starting businesses. They’re tenacious, they’re determined, they follow directions well. And I’ve found that they are extremely appreciative of everything they get from the program.”
Korinne Hill agrees. “This program gave me the confidence to start my business,” she says. “It changed my life.” GB
Bunker Labs is a nationwide, not-for-profit group that has set up accelerators for veteran entrepreneurs in 12 cities. Currently the only Florida location is in Jacksonville. They also offer Bunker in a Box, a self-paced entrepreneurship training platform. See bunkerlabs.org.
If you’re more the dig-in-the-dirt type, Archi’s Institute for Sustainable Agriculture offers a training in Sustainable Organic Agriculture Training. Though they’re based in Escondido, California, you can take their classes, offered through Cal Poly Pomona, online, and do your hands-on training at a farm here in Southwest Florida. It’s approved for active duty as well as veteran’s benefits. Archi’s was founded by combat-decorated Marine Sgt. Colin Archipley and his wife, Karen, a former fashion entrepreneur. They were inspired to offer the training after Colin returned home from duty and saw how many of his fellow veterans were struggling to find satisfying careers. The Archipleys say that theirs is the only training in Sustainable Organic Agriculture Training in the country thus far. See archisinstitute.com for more information.