“It's the skill, the experience, but it's also the work ethic. Military retirees become a ready and able supply of workers.”

On Saturday, Americans paused to honor the men and women who have dedicated parts of their lives to military service to this country.

But veterans’ service doesn’t end when they hang up their uniforms. They become ongoing assets to the communities in which they settle, as both a skilled workforce and a source of civic leadership, according to local economic development experts. In both of those ways, veterans have been, and continue to be, a vital component in developing the Northwest Florida economy.

“You get the kind of economic development that is supported by the infrastructure you have,” according to Don Gaetz, a former state senator and Okaloosa County school superintendent and businessman.

In Northwest Florida, the human capital represented in veterans is definitely a part of that infrastructure.

According to Gaetz, the state’s 1st Congressional District, stretching from Pensacola to near Panama City, comprises “the greatest concentration of retired military of any congressional district in the country. They infuse every part of our region’s life.”

Following their military service, after just a few years, or even after careers spanning two or three decades, many veterans have a considerable number of working years left, noted University of West Florida economist Rick Harper.

In terms of economic development, what that means is that, when competing for new or expanding industries and businesses, Northwest Florida can boast of a high-quality workforce.

“It’s the skill, the experience, but it’s also the work ethic,” Gaetz said. “Military retirees become a ready and able supply of workers.”

Veterans give this area a particular edge in economic development, according to David Goetsch, now serving as life director at the Economic Development Council of Okaloosa County,

“Not only do we have people ready to work, we have people who know how to work,” he said.

A high-tech workforce

Locally speaking, there are a couple of even deeper workforce benefits than veterans' immediate readiness to fill jobs, according to Gaetz. Given the testing and evaluation missions associated with Eglin Air Force Base, and the defense contractors that support those missions, the Panhandle is well-suited to attract high-tech industries and their well-paying jobs, he said.

“We’re hip deep in physicists, scientists, mathematicians and engineers,” Gaetz said.

Addressing what might be a popular misconception about the local economy, Goetsch said the contractors who bring high-tech jobs and the associated support positions to the area aren’t here just because of Eglin Air Force Base — they’re here because of the skills and knowledge of the veterans who choose to live in the area.

Many of the military personnel and their families who cycle through the area at Eglin Air Force Base or other local installations come back to the beaches. Other military personnel work out a way to have their last assignment at one of the area bases, so they can move quickly into their post-service lives in a beach community.

“We attract and hold military families,” Gaetz said.

It’s difficult, though, to be exact about the numbers of veterans who do settle here. Goetsch said the last time he checked, “a couple of thousand” veterans decide each year either to stay here or to move here.

More detailed numbers are available from CareerSource Okaloosa-Walton, a nonprofit organization that identifies and helps manage workforce issues in Okaloosa and Walton counties. That work includes hosting bi-annual job fairs, dubbed Paychecks for Patriots, designed specifically to match local military personnel making the transition to civilian life with local jobs.

CareerSource meets with transitioning military personnel twice monthly at Eglin AFB and Hurlburt Field, and at the end of those sessions, participants are invited to fill out a survey outlining their future plans.

Between October 2015 and November 2017, CareerSource tallied nearly 1,800 surveys, with 41 percent of respondents indicating they want to stay in the area, according to Terry Cowan, the veterans program coordinator at CareerSource Okaloosa-Walton.

Other data show that veterans this year have comprised 24 percent of the people hired by local enterprises through CareerSource Okaloosa-Walton. Year-to-date, CareerSource Okaloosa-Walton has placed 1,872 people in jobs, and of those, 438 were veterans.

On a percentage basis, “that’s far more than any other region in the state,” Cowan said.

According to Cowan, companies looking for workers are often looking specifically for veterans when they have openings.

“They say, ‘I want to hire a veteran,' " Cowan said.

Keeping veterans economic key

Given the value that they add to the local economy, there is a significant local commitment to keeping veterans in the area, much of it in collaboration with the military.

Four years ago, CareerSource Okaloosa-Walton, the 96th Test Wing at Eglin Air Force Base and the 1st Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field agreed to collaborate in efforts to steer veterans toward local job opportunities.

As another example, Goetsch talks with members of the 7th Special Forces Group who are rotating out of military service every 90 days, working to get them to stay in the community.

“I tell them, ‘There are a lot of things you can do that you don’t know you can do,' " Goetsch said, explaining that he wants veterans to know that their discipline and skills can translate into success in a number of career fields that may or may not be related to their service specialty.

 “They often have transferable skills,” UWF’s Harper said, an attribute that “increases our business competitiveness.”

The place of veterans in the local workforce was on display Tuesday at the CareerSource Okaloosa-Walton office, site of the second of this year’s Paychecks for Patriots. More than 50 veterans came to the job fair, for a chance to talk with nine local defense contractors.

Among the veterans at Paychecks for Patriots was 23-year-old Chris Cantwell, who is transitioning out of the Marines after serving as a helicopter mechanic in California.

Cantwell, who grew up in Crestview, has been out of the Marines for a month and is eager to start civilian life in the area he had called home before his military service. He’s looking for work as an aircraft mechanic, and was optimistic after Tuesday’s job fair, saying that he’ll be following up with a potential employer in Pensacola.

"This is where I plan to live,” Cantwell said, citing the relative quiet of the area, as opposed to other beach communities.

Also at Paychecks for Patriots was Steven Carter, who retired from the Eglin-based 7th Special Forces Group in May 2016 at the rank of staff sergeant after 16 years. He’s in the job market, he said, because he didn’t plan quite adequately enough for his retirement from the military.

Carter is from South Florida but wants to stay in the Panhandle. A single parent with “a son, two dogs and a cat,” Carter said, “I think it’s a good place to raise a family ... and the beach is here.”

He wasn’t particularly optimistic after meeting with employers Tuesday, but he did make one of the points touted by economic development professionals regarding veterans' workforce value.

“I’m not a dumb dude,” he said. “I can do anything.”

Veterans are civic leaders

Beyond their contributions to the quality of the local workforce, veterans also contribute to the area’s civic life.

“They don’t just come here, they live here,” Goetsch said. They “serve on neighborhood association boards, run for county commission … They’re the kind of people who work hard to promote that quality of life.”

It’s a phenomenon Goetsch has seen firsthand throughout his long involvement with the EDC and local chambers of commerce. Surveying board rooms and other places where local civic leaders gather, Goetsch said, “I look around, and every other person is a veteran.”

The phenomenon applies to Goetsch himself. As an enlisted veteran of the Marine Corps, he was inducted last year into the Florida Veterans Hall of Fame, which honors veterans for their achievements following their military service.

Beyond the purely local efforts to keep veterans in the community, there is a broader focus on ensuring that the military installations that bring future veterans into the area remain in place, according to Gaetz.

Originating from Washington, Gaetz said, Northwest Florida remains “at the mercy of a political process that wants to pull our missions west,” he said. “It’s intense.”

To counter that, he said, “I think everybody from our congressman to our economic development professionals is focused intensely on ensuring that Northwest Florida is the most military-friendly community in the United States.”

“We work at it 365 days a year,” Goetsch said.