This whole thing - this program and all of these efforts since - started with a simple trip to a job fair taking place at Fort Bragg in Spring 2016.
In an effort to support several area companies participating in the soldier/spouse job fair, representatives from the Catawba County Chamber and Catawba County Economic Development Corp. chose to tag along as well. I think we presumed this would be a one-shot deal and a unique way to help these companies - bridging some divide between the Hickory Metro and transitioning military/spouses by simply making them aware that such job fairs exist at US military bases.
It was an experience that immediately shifted the paradigm...we were simply blown away by the level of talent and character of each and every soldier and spouse we engaged. I can remember the car ride back from Fort Bragg as we all threw "spaghetti on the wall": How could we better connect our community and our economy, so that we may positively impact transitioning military (& importantly),their families and the community as well?
The idea that stuck - we can't bring our community to them, we must bring them to our community. But how?
That led to months and months of work and engaging expertise within the community of resources devoted to assisting veterans and military families. From this, two important milestones:
1. We established the Catawba Military Taskforce (probably a poor name for this group), a public-private partnership of companies, government agencies, nonprofits and Hickory Metro veterans. This group has since been the driving force to build a sustainable model for our community and establish a plan of work based on three overarching priorities: Awareness, Advocacy, and Access.
2. We created and organized the first of our “Welcome Home, Hickory Metro” (WHHM) weekends, an event we have been hosting twice annually at no expense to participating veterans and their families that travel to the community. At each of our "Welcome Home" Weekends, we have offered the following for the first 50 veteran & family registrants: pre-matched job interviews, local hotel accommodations, all local transport and meals, fun excursions for all to enjoy, a $50 gas card for their trouble, and nonprofit/veterans resource fair on-site to connect them with locally available resources.
Over the last year alone, we have hosted 79 veterans and military families through our WHHM weekends. From over 200 initial interviews with Catawba County employers, there have been more than 60 follow-up interviews, 10 job offers and 7 veterans/families that have since relocated and started employment with a local company. Consensus feedback from participants to date (September 2017; April 2018; October 2018)) has been overwhelmingly positive.
As positive as those outcomes have been, each of these weekends take a substantial amount of time, volunteers, partners and resources to organize and host. After some healthy experimentation and "running down that road", we now see multiple ways in which we could better utilize our time and resources to assist transitioning veterans and military families even more effectively.....basing our efforts on the founding principles: Awareness, Advocacy, and Access.
So, the New Year brings a renewed strategic focus - you could say in some ways, we are going back to the basics....now slightly more wise and even more passionate than those early months after our trip to Fort Bragg. We remain committed to this endeavor and only anticipate this growing as the Catawba Military Taskforce (we really do need a new name for it) further hones a more strategically-focused plan for 2019.
Be sure to check back as we release our 2019 plan of work on our website and this blog over the coming weeks.