A new pilot program will work to connect Tucson military veterans with jobs in aerospace and defense.

The Southern Arizona Workforce Initiative, launched by the Tucson Metro Chamber, will utilize a sophisticated online tool that will match vets’ skills to employers’ needs.

Chamber President and CEO Amber Smith said the program will focus on “civilianizing” job-seeking vets’ skills and training into skills employers can understand and use.

“Our goal is to better connect veterans with jobs in our region and to demonstrate that Tucson has the skills employers are looking for,” said Smith, who also advocates for local bases and military members as president of Southern Arizona Defense Alliance.

The veterans’ initiative will help local companies fill a critical need for skilled workers at a time when Tucson expects thousands of job opportunities to open up in the next few years, said Joe Snell, president and CEO of Sun Corridor Inc., the area’s main economic-development agency.

“Companies, if they cannot find talented workers, workers with a certain skill set, it’s going to take us out of business, and we’re already starting to see some pressures on that,” Snell said.

Partners sponsoring the veterans initiative with the Chamber are Pima Community College, Pima County One-Stop Career Centers, CAID Industries, AGM Container Controls and Crest Insurance.

Howard Stewart, president and CEO of Tucson-based AGM Container Controls and a chamber board member, said his 48-year-old company has had good luck finding qualified workers over the years. AGM, which has about 100 employees, makes environmental controls for the aerospace and defense industries.

“These are different times, the economy is pumping really hard right now and the unemployment rate is getting lower and lower, so finding those talented individuals is getting harder and harder,” Stewart said.

The chamber program is intended to help people like Nicholas Andres Figueroa, a Marine Corps veteran who left the service last year.

“I was surprised how hard it was to find a job in the civilian world,” Figueroa said at an event announcing the chamber jobs initiative. “The only job I could find was as an overnight stocker at Walmart. There’s nothing wrong with that job, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do, so I went back to school.”

Figueroa is now studying networking at Pima Community College and plans to pursue a degree in cybersecurity at the University of Arizona.

He said soft skills he learned in the Marines, like leadership, are important.

“But (learning) soft skills alone isn’t enough — we need 21st-century skills, plus connection to employment,” Figueroa said.

The chamber’s new pilot program is an offshoot of the Hero2Hired program, an online veterans job-matching program developed by North Carolina-based Futures Inc.

The program, which supported 40 job fairs nationally in 2012, was initially funded by the Department of Defense’s Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program and focused on National Guard and Reserve members.

The chamber, which is spending $50,000 on the program, has contracted with Futures Inc. to launch the local pilot, Smith said, adding that future plans for the program will be assessed after a job fair scheduled for Oct. 23.

The Southern Arizona Veterans Workforce Initiative’s online tool helps match military occupation codes with civilian skills, certifications and jobs, and maps factors such as education, security clearances, work experience and job availability.

The program also will help match veterans with training, and Pima Community College will work with employers to see that veterans get the instruction they need, said Ian Roark, PCC vice president of workforce development.

“We will align them with an employer based on the skill sets they already have and train only to the gap that they bring to us, which makes them more employable faster, so they’re earning faster and also meeting our employers’ needs faster,” Roark said.

Contact senior reporter David Wichner at dwichner@tucson.com or 573-4181. On Twitter: @dwichner. On Facebook: Facebook.com/DailyStarBiz

Senior reporter covering business and technology for the Arizona Daily Star/Tucson.com