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Adam Rocke says much has changed since the Pentagon realized that Vietnam-era veterans were given nothing more than discharge papers and a bus ticket home.

“The way we treat service members coming out is directly tied to the success of future staffing,” Rocke said. “That will determine how our young men and women look at life in the service.”

Rocke is senior director of external engagement for Hiring our Heroes, a nonprofit foundation run by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. During a recent meeting of the Prince William Chamber of Commerce’s veterans committee, he highlighted the opportunities for Virginia businesses to improve their chances of success by partnering with his organization.

Rocke, who lives in Lorton, ran the Soldier for Life program in the closing days of his Army career. As part of the military’s Transition Assistance Program, service members in their last year are required to create a personal self-assessment and individual plan to identify unique needs and post-transition goals.

The SkillBridge program, one of the formal agreements between the Department of Defense and private employers, allows service members to gain civilian work experience through specific industry training, apprenticeships or internships during their last 180 days of service.

The city of Manassas has capitalized on the program, Deputy City Manager Brian Foster told InsideNoVa. Working with the International City/County Management Association, Foster said Manassas used three- and six-month fellowships through SkillBridge, tailored toward service members’ interests and backgrounds, to create a pipeline for careers in local government.

The city has had two transitioning service members through SkillBridge, he added. “It’s been very beneficial for both of them, as well as the city. They did very different things for us – that’s the beauty of the program; we can tailor it to meet their needs.”

Foster said one of the fellows was an officer in military public health, and she worked on policy research for the city while she was still receiving a military salary.

“She wanted to learn the ins and outs of local government, and methodically spent time in every city department, including spending a day in the fleet, seeing what they do to meet their mission,” Foster said.

The other city fellow, a retiring lieutenant colonel, used his military experience as a Capitol Hill liaison to work on federal issues for Manassas.

“It’s a great opportunity, and potential employment pipeline that I don’t think people know to tap, perhaps because people think that military and civilian jobs are dissimilar skills,” Foster said. “The services are rich with skills and experience, and they are, in fact, very transferrable,”

Foster said that a successful service member can bring critical thinking skills, leadership and team management experience to any business.

Rocke said employers interested in hiring veterans can register with the U.S. Chamber, which now lists over 1,000 companies that realize what key skills veterans can offer.

“It doesn’t matter what size your company is,” he added. “If you’re looking for one employee, or you're looking for thousands of employees, we want to partner with you.”

Rocke likened the SkillBridge fellowship to a three-month job interview.

“We’ve got over 90% offer rates and the mean salaries are off the charts,” Rocke said. He added that chamber staffers work with companies to help them learn how best to use the highly-educated workers stepping out of the uniform and back to civilian life.

Paul Lara covers the military beat. Reach him at plara@insidenova.com

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