When Rhonda Armstead was finishing over a decade of Navy service, she found herself no longer taking orders from anyone.

It was “uneven ground” for the former display technician and military correctional officer.

“I’m told how to do everything and now I’m out and I’m like, ‘Can somebody call me and tell me what to do next?’” she said. “I depend on the military to help guide me through life.”

In January, she found stability with a new training program at Schofield Barracks that helps veterans and soon-to-be veterans transition back to civilian life. The Microsoft Software & Systems Academy is an 18-week course that offers lessons in cloud development, server and cloud administration and cybersecurity administration. There is full-time instruction 8 hours a day, and Microsoft mentors visit via video call twice a week.

Embry Riddle Aeronautical University student Rhonda Armstead works with her ‘slate’ during class at Schofield Barracks.
Rhonda Armstead wants to find a job in tech when she graduates from Microsoft’s training program. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Armstead said she now has a grasp on technology issues that used to be intimidating.

“This program has lifted the veil off all that, and I have a greater understanding of things that were beyond me,” Armstead said.

Launched on Oahu last year, the program is also taught on military bases in California, Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, North Carolina, Texas, Virginia and Washington. It’s free for service members through the GI Bill. Armstead is one of 23 current students at Schofield representing the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force.

Microsoft said in a statement that the company values what former military members have to offer. “Veterans are trained to quickly assess, analyze and fix a situation with the resources at hand while working with a diverse group of people as a team; skills that are incredibly applicable to the technology industry.”

In January, the veteran unemployment rate was 3.1%, lower than the non-veteran unemployment rate of 3.4%, according to the Department of Labor. However, there is some evidence veterans have trouble finding the right fit as they enter the civilian job market, according to a 2017 report by ZipRecruiter and the Call of Duty Endowment, a nonprofit funded by the maker of the popular military-themed video game. The authors found that underemployment affects veteran job seekers more than their non-veteran peers.

“This may reflect a number of factors, including veteran difficulty with translating military skills and experiences into the civilian workforce; a need to take sub-optimal jobs after military service in order to replace income; a gap in civilian job search or workforce navigation skills; or others,” the report says. “However, the net effects appear to be slightly higher turnover for veterans in their first 1-2 years after military service, and also slightly higher rates of disaffection among veterans.”

Microsoft’s program helps vets switch gears on an accelerated timeline that’s like cramming five college classes into four and a half months, said Maurice Radke, a site manager for the program.

“Their language changes from ‘I work at 33 Marines, Alpha Company, Bravo this, Charlie that,’ to using the lingo from the IT world,” said Radke, a Navy veteran himself. “They sound like they belong in that industry when they’re done.”

Beyond technical classes, participants learn soft skills like resume writing, personal branding and salary negotiation. Students are also matched with job search consultants from Robert Half, a staffing agency based in Las Vegas.

“They need to know that, yeah, they were great in the infantry but that’s not the brand they need when they’re catering to the outside,” Radke said.

Before the end of the program, every participant gets a job interview with Microsoft, Radke said.

Hawaii’s first cohort of 17 graduated last year. Three of them are now working for Microsoft, according to Radke. Another four are doing a paid internship with Amazon, two went back to school and the others are working in different roles in IT for companies that partnered with Microsoft. Graduates of the program make on average more than $75,000 per year, according to Microsoft.

A Waianae resident originally from California, Armstead hopes to find an IT job – Microsoft would be great, she said – and to stay in Hawaii.

“I love my community,” she said. “I get to see the beach when I leave for work and when I come home, I get to see the sunset. If I can stay, I’m going to stay.”

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