Job skills training class at Fort Knox
Entrepreneurship training class at Fort Knox

If you’re a human resource director, what qualities are you looking for in a new hire? The ability to work as part of a team? People who are comfortable leading others? Responsible, accountable, dependable and in good health? People who take well to training?

Each year, several thousand people who fit that description start looking for work, and they’re just 35 miles down the road.

Fort Knox invited dozens of local business leaders to a meeting last week to shed light on Where Opportunity Knox, a new initiative of the Kentucky Indiana Exchange aimed at pairing military veterans and spouses with work in the Greater Louisville area. Insider’s David Serchuk wrote about the official launch in September.

Business leaders from Horseshoe Casino, Humana, Greater Louisville Inc., Lowes, Sam Swope Auto Dealers and many others came to the meeting, visited classrooms and talked to Army personnel.

Since 2009, the entire Human Resource Command of the U.S. Army is located at Fort Knox. It’s also home to the Army’s “Soldier for Life” Transition Assistance Program (TAP). That means no matter where a soldier starts to “transition out,” all paperwork is handled by Fort Knox.

And more people are transitioning out than ever before — because of budget control on the federal level, the Army has a mandate to slowly shed personnel. Currently there are around 504,000 soldiers, and the Army has to get that number closer to 400,000. Last year, 132,000 soldiers transitioned out of the Army. This year that number is expected to be 128,000.

Where Opportunity Knox has a goal of placing 10,000 veterans in jobs by the end of three years.

Garrison Commander Colonel T.J. Edwards, who is the “mayor” of Fort Knox, said the base has a $1 billion — “with a ‘b'” — annual impact on the area. The base also boasts the largest battalion of engineers in the United States.

Col. Edwards said that when you’re hiring a soldier, they’re going to work hard for you. They won’t leave military-level productivity and “take a knee.”

Former acting CEO of GLI Eileen Pickett is serving as an economic development consultant for this project. Part of Where Opportunity Knox involves matching veterans to people in the community who can help them — whether they’re an employer or a mentor. This part of the program is critical because veterans may have been in the military their entire adult lives and likely have moved around a lot. They “don’t have the external network that many non-military people do.”

Beth Avey, director of the program, said the quality of this initiative is something that could “position Greater Louisville as the place for veterans.”

Job skills class
Job skills class

After the meeting, attendees were taken by bus to Graham Hall, where transitioning classes are held. We first visited a job skills course of 39 students. The instructor asked them to Google their names on their laptops and then launched into a lesson about making sure your online presence is acceptable to employers. “In big companies, they hire people to do that — to check up on people. That’s their whole job,” she said.

Next, we breezed through a smaller class called “Boots to Business” — this is a class about entrepreneurship. As we walked in, the instructor was relaying the pros and cons of becoming an LLC.

Every Wednesday, the TAP program offers a mini job fair where they invite five or six companies to set up booths and talk to the transitioning vets. During last week’s visits, some of the companies represented were: TransAmerica, the Kentucky Department of Corrections, Kemper Bros., and Edward Moving. Transition Manager Frank Johnston said it wasn’t unusual to have two or three immediate hires each week.

Those companies aren’t offering jobs that are growing the economy or attracting other high-salary jobs, which was a little disappointing given this had been pitched as an economic development boon and the staff had stressed Fort Knox veterans’ education and skill.

Captain Tim Rhodes
Captain Tim Rhodes

But then we’re introduced to Captain Tim Rhodes.

Capt. Rhodes is nine days shy of being in the Army for seven years. That means 13 more before he can retire. He’s part of the Corps of Engineers and is in charge of a company of 180 soldiers who build bridges, roads and buildings. He has $50 million worth of equipment under his care.

“I’m a nerdy engineering kind of guy,” says Capt. Rhodes. His company got back from nine months in Kuwait in August. He’s also spent 12 months in Iraq, and he was deployed to the East Coast after Hurricane Sandy.

His father was in the Army, but Rhodes didn’t intend to follow in his footsteps. He attended the University of Alabama-Birmingham and earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, and then went on to Missouri University of Science and Technology where he graduated with both a master’s degree in engineering management and a certificate of military construction management. He’s also a certified project manager.

Capt. Rhodes took a job working as a test engineer at Raytheon’s Missile Systems. (Insert mandatory “rocket scientist joke” here.) Two and a half years later, when his wife was pregnant with their first child, he told her he wanted join the Army.

It will be 13 years before Rhodes looks for a job. But the Army transitions thousands of Capt. Rhodes every year.

Louisville needs skilled talent. We need engineers of all sorts. Fort Knox is shedding thousands of these people every day. Opportunity Knox highlights a potentially overlooked talent pool, right in our backyard.

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