FORT WALTON BEACH — On any given day, there are between 3,000 and 4,000 jobs available in Okaloosa and Walton counties. Routinely, the people vying for those jobs will include young airmen and soldiers transitioning out of military careers at local bases, who want to stay around the beaches, water and sunshine of Northwest Florida.
Demographically speaking, those young airmen and soldiers are a big part of the reason that the median age in this part of the state hovers around the late 30s to early 40s, far younger than much of the rest of Florida.
“We’re talking jobs A to Z, we’re talking all the industries — hospitality, defense, IT, engineering, manufacturing," said Neely Jo Harrington, the veteran employment representative at CareerSource Okaloosa Walton, a nonprofit employment services center that offers special services to military personnel moving into the civilian workforce.
"They just need to come in the front door, and somehow or another, someone's going to sit down with them and help them," Harrington said.
The young people leaving the military have skills that will translate for local employers, from defense contractors to whatever else they might want to do, including starting their own business.
"The guy that is able to put the metal on the back of the plane, take a window out, put a window in, those are certifications that become very valuable later," said Tom Rice, a retired Army NCO and local restaurant owner who serves on the board of Veterans Florida, a nonprofit organization which works to help veterans achieve success in the state.
Among the young people electing to stay in this area following their time in the military is Nicole Yount, a 29-year-old from Ohio who left the Air Force — sort of — in February as her six-year commitment was winding down. Yount, who made staff sergeant working in supply at Hurlburt Field, is now working in supply — at Hurlburt Field — but as an employee of Global Asset Technologies, a private contractor.
Asked if she sees herself as a long-time resident of Fort Walton Beach — she already owns a house here, on a quiet street sandwiched between Hurlburt Road and Beal Parkway — Yount says, "I think so. I mean, especially if you eventually see yourself having a family, and wanting more of that kind of lifestyle — definitely. I think it's very family-friendly down here. There are fun things to do as well, and it's not super-stuffy."
Already committed to staying here is another young airman who recently separated from the Air Force. Andrew Hume, 32 — and like Yount, a former staff sergeant — now is working in aircraft maintenance at Hurlburt Field for Lockheed Martin. It's exactly what he'd done as an airman, in the same place, he said.
"My wife really likes it here," he said. The couple, who have young children, are particularly impressed with the local schools.
And, he added, the weather is better than in Iowa, from which they came to Northwest Florida.
"I'll take 58 degrees over 4 degrees," Hume said, comparing recent weekend temperatures in Florida versus Iowa.
Also parlaying the skills he gained in the military into local civilian employment is Jerome McKinnon, who until recently served as an intelligence analyst, also at the rank of staff sergeant, with the 33rd Fighter Wing at Eglin Air Force Base. Like Hume, the weather was a huge factor in keeping McKinnon in the area.
Before he got a job offer from DCS Corp., a national security technology firm with an office in Niceville, McKinnon had been in serious discussions with Lockheed Martin for a job in Maryland.
"Moving up to that snow would have been a world-changer for me," laughed McKinnon, who grew up in middle Georgia.
McKinnon is doing exactly the same work he did at Eglin, and he credits his military experience with allowing him to discover, and continue working in, something about which he is passionate.
"I'm doing what I love because I was in a uniform," he said.
The local demographic trend toward a relatively young median age was boosted less than a decade ago, when the Army's 7th Special Forces Group, now more than 2,000 troops strong, moved from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to an Eglin Air Force Base compound near Crestview. Retired Army Col. Robert Kirila, former deputy commander with 7th Group, came here with the group, and then returned to the area after his time in the Army was over.
Today, he operates an executive placement firm that matches former military special operations personnel with high-level corporate jobs.
There is, though, something working against transitioning military personnel, Kirila said — an outdated notion that people in the military are there because they aren't particularly well-educated, or they enlisted as a means of staying out of jail, or that their skill sets are limited to combat-related skills.
"I have these kinds of conversations every week with guys that are running Fortune 500 companies," Kirila said. "They'll say, 'We'll put him in charge of security, and I'll say ' OK, look — my guy is going to be graduating from Stanford business school in three months, and he wants to go into leveraged acquisitions.'"
"The fact is," Kirila said, "that when we changed to an all-volunteer Army, it fundamentally changed they types of people that go into the service. ... It is a fundamentally different experience and talent level."
One young special operator that Kirila knows, a 20-something family man, is leaving the 7th Group after eight years in the military and heading to MIT's Sloan School of Management.
"They're this cute little 20-something family ... and they are representative of the 7th Group guys," Kirila said. Some of them, undoubtedly, will return to Northwest Florida, Kirila added, "and they (will) start their own consulting company or cybersecurity company. This is a hugely attractive place for young families, and if they can figure out a way to make it happen, they will."
One of the ways of making that happen is the Department of Defense's SkillBridge program, under which a military member within 180 days of separating or retiring can, if his or her commander approves, go into an internship with a local company, learning about a career field they're interested in while continuing to receive a paycheck and other benefits from their military career.
“Knowing that you have a really good opportunity to have employment at the end of your enlistment, or once your retirement day comes … not having the stress of having to find a job makes a huge difference in your own life and in your family’s life," Harrington said.
CareerSource stays plugged in to local workforce issues, Harrington said, by staying in touch with area hiring managers, keeping abreast of industries looking at coming into the area, and monitoring general employment trends.
The military itself is doing a better job of helping its personnel make the transition to civilian employment, according to Harrington, with tuition assistance and programs like SkillBridge. "The military is trying to get them into that mindset to start preparing a lot earlier, so that when you do transition out, you already have your education, you already have your certifications, so that a year out (from leaving the military) you can just start job searching," Harrington said.
Jim Bagby, a local retired Army lieutenant colonel who serves as vice chairman of the board for Veterans Florida, believes the demographic trends that make this part of the state younger than other parts of Florida are going to continue.
“You’ve constantly got new kids coming in (to the local military bases)," he said. "You get that new blood coming in, and they have the exact same experiences as all of us had that came here. They had a wonderful time and want to get back here, so they will continue to refresh that. ... You’re always going to have new people coming in, experiencing it and saying ‘Wow, when I retire, when I get out, I want to go back there."