Job-hopping Veteran Finds VA Retraining Program
FORT MEADE, Md., July 26, 2012 – Cheryl Blackburn was raised in a strict sergeant major’s family, and when she enlisted right after high school, she planned on an Army career.
But plans changed, and Blackburn got out of the Army after four years. And she was not prepared for what she found in her first venture into the civilian employment world.
“It was kind of difficult, because I wasn’t sure about what my options were,” she said, adding that she joined the Army Reserve for a year and a half, but the transition to civilian employment was not easy.
Eventually, Blackburn went to a local law enforcement academy, where she got her training in contract security. She then worked at the State Department for a few years and did odd jobs until she injured her hand and couldn’t fire a gun.
With two daughters to support, Blackburn said she had to become creative, so she opened a day care business and ran that for five and a half years. She then went to Texas and worked in the corporate office of a large department store.
Blackburn then returned to the Washington area and worked as a customer service manager for a store in an outlet mall, and at the same time, took custody of a granddaughter.
“I drove back and forth to D.C., and was late picking her up [from day care], and the late fees started adding up,” she said. “So, I had to make another change.”
Her next position was as an apartment complex leasing agent, which lasted three and a half years until she was laid off. “I went to another apartment complex, and was there a few months last year until the company was bought out,” she said. Blackburn and three other employees were then laid off.
During two rounds of unemployment, Blackburn said, she has been frustrated by trying to pay bills and raise children on what she described as a half or a quarter of her former paycheck.
“You really have to step back and reassess everything,” she said. “I had to pay off a lot of bills with my bonus money and my income tax. It would’ve been harder if I hadn’t had that. [Unemployment] is difficult, and the struggle is rough.” Eventually a friend convinced her to go the Veterans Affairs Department to seek help.
Now, she said, she sees a counselor who has helped her in other ways.
“The counselor said, ‘How can we get you from Point A to Point B? If you want to go back to school, we can help you with that,’” she said of the counselor’s advice. “It was very helpful.”
Blackburn’s contact with the VA led her to its Veterans Retraining Assistance Program, which offers up to 12 months of education for unemployed veterans ages 35 to 60 who also meet other criteria. After completion of VRAP, the Labor Department will offer employment assistance. Blackburn said she’s found other resources and support at VA as well.
After she completes her VRAP training and receives her information security certificate, Blackburn plans to continue her education and get her degree.
She has advice for fellow veterans adjusting to civilian life. “If you have the desire to go to the next level, stick to it regardless of how you feel,” she said. “But you have to work harder at it. It’s not as difficult as it seems, but it does require a lot of work.”