Junction City, Kansas, is one of the most diverse cities in the state, and much of that diversity is owed to nearby Fort Riley. That’s straight from the mayor of Junction City, Jeff Underhill. Underhill is serving his second year as mayor and is working on an ambitious plan to keep that diversity in his hometown.
His plan is a unique public-private partnership that will train soldiers close to the end of their enlistments for jobs needed in the area and then placing them in those jobs. It’s an innovative program, one that might be adaptable to the rest of the United States.
Underhill isn’t a veteran himself, but he comes from a military family heritage. As mayor, he recognizes the importance of not just the economic impact of the local Army base, but also the potential power of the people who work there, even when they leave the service.
“Every year, about 2,000 soldiers transition out of the Army at Fort Riley,” Underhill told Military.com. “We're only keeping about 8% of them here. If we could get that number up to 25%, that's just going to be great for our community as a whole. If we can have good jobs for those veterans and military families, then Fort Riley will ultimately become a destination for people getting ready to transition out. And we want those people here.”
It’s called the Junction for Military/Civilian Innovation (JMCI), and it uses a career-advising platform built by AstrumU, a data services firm. The software first identifies soldiers who are getting close to their date of separation, around 18 months. The soldiers then can take questionnaires about themselves in a number of areas, including their skills, employment history and even hobbies.
The idea is to find fulfilling work in the local area for the soldiers while providing employers with skilled people to fill their needs. Soldiers will be trained in the area that fits with their preferences and a local need (if they choose; the program isn’t mandatory) at no cost. When they leave the service, they will have gainful employment that is challenging and benefits the local community.
It’s all based on the idea of “upskilling” or “reskilling,” providing education, training and certification in a field that fits an employee, without the expense or time spent going to a traditional two or four-year university. It’s the latest trend among America’s largest employers, and it’s working for veterans leaving the military.
JMCI partners with schools like Kansas State Polytechnic and community colleges to provide the training and job placement comes from local and national businesses alike, including T-Mobile, P1 Group and Evergy, just to name a few.
“Ultimately, the goal is to promote Junction City and grow Junction City,” the mayor said. “Hopefully we can retain some of those people that might be working for these companies here. However, the bigger picture is helping transitioning soldiers, that way people would want to come here.”
For the soldiers, the program is so new that many may not know it exists. It has been in the works for two years and will take another 12 months to be fully implemented. That’s not a problem for AstrumU. The program will approach the soldiers when the time comes. If the soldier is interested, they can begin the process 18 months before leaving the military.
Best of all, the Army and AstrumU is using the program as a beta test to determine whether it can be scaled Army-wide.
“Selfishly, we have the goal to get people to stay in Junction City,” Underhill said. “But the bigger picture is that if we can help people military-wide transition into high-paying jobs, then that's a big win as well.”
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