Cristina Alfonso-Zea was second-generation career military when she enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2008.
She envisioned a profession with inherent job security, an aspiration that was derailed in 2010 near Baghdad when an IED attack left her with debilitating injuries to both hips.
Unexpectedly thrust back into civilian life, Alfonso-Zea — who is from New York but moved to Southern Nevada about four years ago — not only was unprepared for the physical and emotional challenges she faced but also the lack of resources for transitioning veterans, particularly in finding a job.
“It was very scary and frustrating,” said Alfonso-Zea, who temporarily was homeless and struggled with PTSD and alcohol addiction. “I was unable to walk or find a job, and the hoops I had to jump through to get the right guidance made me feel like a circus animal.”
BY THE NUMBERS*
• 22 million: Number of U.S. veterans
• 2 million: Number of female U.S. veterans
• 228,000: Number of Nevada veterans
Source: Department of Veterans Affairs
* As of Sept. 30
Hope came in the form of Goodwill of Southern Nevada’s Veteran Integration Program (VIP), a veteran-to-veteran peer-assistance initiative that provides participants and their families tools to transition from active duty to civilian life while advancing professionally and establishing financial stability. Launched in late 2012, VIP offers job training and placement, résumé-writing assistance, mock interviews, access to job fairs and trade-school tuition. It also provides bus passes, gas cards, clothing vouchers and funds for work cards.
VIP was the brainchild of Elizabeth McDaniels, Goodwill’s director of mission services, who recognized a gap in local services that needed to be bridged.
“We started seeing an influx of veterans in our career center, and they had some barriers that were different from the general public, such as translating their federal résumés with military job descriptions to a one-page civilian résumé and also identifying and developing the transferable skills they learned in the military,” McDaniels said.
Other issues included a stiff presentation learned from the formality of military culture a sense of pride that sometimes came across as arrogance in interviews.
Launched with a $350,000 grant from Nevada Women’s Philanthropy, the program recently received $200,000 from the Bank of America Charitable Foundation.
• 5.3 percent: Unemployment rate among all veterans
• 6.7 percent: Unemployment rate among post-9/11 veterans
• 5.5 percent: National unemployment rate
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
* As of February
“VIP reflected the intersection of two critical issues: reintegrating veterans to our communities, and workforce development and job creation for Southern Nevadans,” Nevada Women’s Philanthropy President Kelly Cavanagh said.
Since its inception, VIP has helped more than 500 local veterans find jobs, including Alfonso-Zea, who was at a professional impasse when she was referred to the program.
Working with a counselor who also was a veteran — a key element of the program’s success — Alfonso-Zea obtained a scholarship for computer classes that prepared her to land a position in information technology with a local casino.
“With all my hiccups, it took almost a full year, but I don’t think I would be here if not for the program and my counselor Shawn Schwiesow, who worked day and night (on my behalf),” said Alfonso-Zea, who was honored March 5 as VIP’s “Client of the Year.”
RESOURCES FOR VETERANS
• VetSuccess.org: Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the site allows veterans to post their résumés and employers to post job openings.
• NVCareerCenter.org: The local outlet of the One-Stop Career Center offers employment and training services for job-seekers.
• VetJobs.com: Endorsed by multiple veteran-service organizations, this site offers a job board and monthly newsletter for veterans.
• RecruitMilitary.com: A veteran-owned firm with a focus on education, training, veteran jobs, civilian careers and more.
• H2H.jobs (Hero2Hired): Transitioning vets can create and post résumés and search for jobs with military-friendly companies.
• VeteranJobsMission.com: A coalition of more than 180 U.S. companies committed to hiring veterans.
• TAOnline.com (Transitional Assistance Online): A one-stop shop for transitioning armed service members and veterans.
• MyNextMove.org/vets: A tool from the U.S. Department of Labor for transitioning veterans who are unsure about civilian careers.
• CareerCommandPost.com: Connects active and veteran military members with civilian employers.
U.S. Air Force veteran Dawn Douglas had a similar experience with VIP when she retired last year after 20 years of military service. Referred to the program by a mentor who also retired from the Air Force, Douglas began searching for employment even before relocating to Southern Nevada last year.
“It was scary and stressful to transition from the military mindset to the civilian mindset, and I hit some stumbling blocks,” Doulas said.
Now employed by a pharmaceutical company, Douglas appreciated the program’s veteran-to-veteran approach.
“I can’t stress how awesome it is to have somebody who has been where you are helping you through the process because nobody can better relate,” she said.
The Department of Defense estimates 250,000 veterans transition from military to civilian life each year. A 2014 poll of veterans by The Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation found half had difficulty adjusting, although their expectations for employment were optimistic. Sixty-six percent believed they had the education and skills to be competitive in the job market, 81 percent thought their military skills would translate well to the civilian market and 62 percent thought employers would see their military service as an advantage.
“From day one, the military focuses on leadership, teamwork and work ethic,” McDaniels said, adding that veterans are accustomed to multitasking, working with a diverse population, following directions and meeting deadlines. “These qualities translate to any job, at any level of responsibility, and are what employers tell us they are looking for when hiring new employees.”
In Southern Nevada, many companies recognize the value veterans bring to the table.
Station Casinos, for instance, has a long-standing tradition of military and veteran support. Last year, Station launched Operation Thank You, which includes an ongoing effort to hire servicemen and women. Of Station Casinos’ roughly 12,000 employees in Southern Nevada, a few thousand are veterans, including the general managers at both Red Rock Resort and Green Valley Ranch Resort.
“Since as far back as 2000, we’ve had a special place in our hearts for veterans and started looking into programs to hire them,” said Valerie Murzl, Station’s senior vice president of human resources. “Veterans bring a wealth of talent and strength to our company. Not only have they been trained to lead by example, they show amazing initiative and inspire others through teamwork.”