As partner in SkillBridge program, CHRISTUS eases service members' shift to civilian careers

August 1, 2023

When Air Force veteran Shelby Lopez's initial plans to transition to a civilian career fell through, CHRISTUS Health system offered a new path.

In May 2022, she became the first of 50 veterans onboarded to work for the Irving, Texas-based system through a collaboration with the Department of Defense's SkillBridge program.

Shelby Lopez was still in the Air Force when she began her transition to a job with CHRISTUS Health through SkillBridge, a partnership between the Department of Defense and civilian employers.

SkillBridge, established in 2011, connects the military with civilian organizations to give military members within 180 days of leaving uniform the opportunity to work in the civilian sector. CHRISTUS is among more than 3,200 civilian organizations in the program. Other Catholic health systems that participate in the program include Ascension and Bon Secours Mercy Health, according to the program's website.

"I was just excited to start something new but do it with an opportunity to find my way in an organization without starting from scratch," said Lopez, who served from 2016-2022 in a human resources capacity.

She said she was interested in being in a hospital setting, although unsure if she wanted to focus on the clinical side or human resources. "It's a setting I've never worked in before, so I wanted the opportunity to jump in there to see what that was like, to find my path," Lopez said.

An extra advantage
From May 2022 to late May 2023, the new CHRISTUS associates joined the system through the SkillBridge partnership.

Luis Sepulveda, manager of talent acquisition for CHRISTUS, said the system first became aware of the program through Dr. Sam Bagchi, executive vice president and chief clinical officer, and a contractor named Bill Cooper, who is a veteran with his own SkillBridge experience.


"Dr. Bagchi really fell in love with the idea of helping out veterans, helping them transition to the civilian sector, and also giving them the opportunity to do their internship with CHRISTUS and then, hopefully, be able to employ them on the back end," Sepulveda said.

More than 200,000 service members separate from the military annually, according to military discharge data. Of those, nearly 21,000 were projected to separate in Texas alone in fiscal year 2019.

Sepulveda, a Marine Corps veteran who served for 13 years, said SkillBridge is a blessing for those transitioning from military service to civilian careers.

"I see the benefit of how great it is and how important it is to have a really good structured program on the employer side for these veterans because it truly is a challenge," Sepulveda said. "The stress level that they have of leaving that secure paycheck that they receive the first and the 15th, their benefits and all that, and then transition back into the civilian sector, it's a big life-changing event."

Finding her way
While she was in CHRISTUS' SkillBridge program, Lopez worked in various departments — from assisting nurses to talent acquisition to human resources. "I kind of made myself available to anybody that needed some assistance," she said, "and that's kind of how I found my way."

She worked closest with the talent acquisition team and was hired full time as a talent acquisition specialist at the end of her SkillBridge tenure. She transitioned to a human resources role last December.

"What I found in that (talent acquisition) role, in comparison to the role I have now, was it's like a revolving door," Lopez said. "You don't really get to see associates beyond the initial onboarding, beyond that first interaction with them. And for me, wanting to help people on a different level was something that spoke to me."

To get SkillBridge started, the system established a pilot program at CHRISTUS Children's hospital in San Antonio. The program has since expanded to all San Antonio facilities, as well as to others in Texas and Louisiana.

SkillBridge-affiliated employees attend CHRISTUS' new associate orientation and undergo a background check like any other employee. Associates in the program have held positions ranging from registered nurse to respiratory therapist, along with some entry-level jobs such as patient care tech, patient sitters and patient transporters.

"Those are really good entry-level positions for military members that always wanted to have that medical field experience but didn't get that opportunity in the military to be able to do that as their job," Sepulveda said.

Veterans helping veterans
Sepulveda said SkillBridge has been a great resource for finding qualified job candidates. As of May, at least 10 associates had transitioned from SkillBridge to full-time employment. CHRISTUS hired most of those associates at its San Antonio, Westover Hills and New Braunfels locations in Texas.

Two CHRISTUS recruiters are retired Air Force veterans with backgrounds in human resources. "Now they're on this end helping veterans transition, and they can definitely relate because they went through the program themselves," Sepulveda said.

Renee Holloway, a CHRISTUS human resources generalist, was so impressed with her SkillBridge associate Sharon Barbosa that she shared a testimonial with her CHRISTUS colleagues.

"We had five associate engagement events in a week and a half, and there is no way I could have done these without her," Holloway wrote. "She has a servant's heart and senses needs before you even ask her to do something."

Sepulveda said the training and flexibility that come from being in the military are helpful for service members and their CHRISTUS supervisors.

"Those soft skills that they bring to the table are truly what's valuable about having that military skill background, no matter what MOS (military occupation specialty) they come from," Sepulveda said.

Lopez said that task management is one of the skills she honed in the military and brought to CHRISTUS. "There's a lot of moving parts, and being able to be flexible with whatever comes through the door was something really helpful," Lopez said.

Lopez called her experience from SkillBridge to now an "incredible journey."

"I often think about how grateful I am that this came about when I really needed it," Lopez said. "And I recommend anybody who's looking to make the transition to consider CHRISTUS as their way in, because we've got a good family here, we've got a good culture."

Between April 3 and late May, there was a nearly 50% increase in SkillBridge applications, according to Sepulveda.

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