Starting Over

by Sara Browning

War veterans are finding ways to counter an unwelcoming job market with a little help from Peoria-area businesses and organizations.

Very few businesses, it seems, are throwing out welcome mats for veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Although the media has long promoted the armed forces as a primary aid in equipping young persons for college and giving others a career boost by helping them attain leadership and teamwork skills, for many employers, the “good soldiers make good employees” image has become distorted due to the widening gap between servicemen and those who hire. The image was most popular during the 1980s and ‘90s when a large number of employers had served in the military during Vietnam. According to an article in Crain’s Chicago Business, unemployment rates for veterans nationwide between 20 and 24 years of age reached 10.4 percent in 2006, compared with 8.1 percent for non-veterans of the same age.

Why are so many businesses employing so few veterans? Some employers believe veterans are unprepared to begin a career after months of service overseas. According to a survey conducted by Military.com, 81 percent of veterans leave the military feeling unprepared to return to the workforce. Those veterans who enlist in the military straight out of high school receive very little career counseling and enter the job market without knowledge of the basic skills held by most college graduates, such as how to prepare a resume, network or give a memorable interview. Fortunately, businesses and organizations such as Goodwill Industries, The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Advanced Technology Services and the Veterans Assistance Commission have recognized the need for employment among former servicemen and have created housing, employment training services and other programs to serve those who have served our country.

Home Sweet Home

Goodwill Industries of Central Illinois, which began its operations in Peoria at the height of the Great Depression in 1934, now provides veterans a place to live with the construction of the Goodwill Home for Veterans in May 2005. The home provides a holistic environment for the rehabilitation of disabled veterans who have experienced difficulties finding employment. Goodwill CEO Patricia Fuchs developed the idea for the veterans’ home and sought out ways to generate funding for the facility, gaining support from Congressman Ray LaHood and others. “Our mission is to improve the economic self-sufficiency of veterans by providing them with work and a place to live,” says Duffy Armstrong, Goodwill’s Director of Development.

The Goodwill Home is the first permanent veterans’ housing unit in the state. Those who come to the home are recommended by the Veterans’ Affairs Clinic and by psychologists in Peoria. Goodwill also accepts self-referrals from friends and families. Candidates for the home go through a screening process during which Goodwill assesses the candidate’s background and performs a detailed intake. The intake is either approved or rejected by the admissions committee. Once admitted, veterans have 90 days to find employment or enroll in school. In order to assist veterans with their job search, the Veterans’ Home offers computer training and forklift training programs, and veterans are screened for the skills necessary to perform different types of jobs. According to Paulette Howard, Director of Vocational Services at Goodwill, 30 percent of veterans’ adjusted gross income is paid as rent.

“Paying rent teaches veterans self-sufficiency and also gives them a sense of responsibility so that they can learn to live on their own at their own pace and become self-reliant individuals,” says Howard. In addition to rent, the Veterans’ Home receives funding through an Illinois Department of Human Services Grant.

Currently, all Goodwill residents are men between 30 and 65 years of age. According to Howard, residents’ ability to relate to one another within the home is of great importance. “Veterans are very unique characters,” she says. “They feel safe with someone who can understand their issues.” In order to encourage socialization, the Veterans’ Home arranges times for spouses and children to visit with residents. Duffy has high hopes of getting residents involved in a summer gardening project, which would include planting a flower/vegetable garden outside the house. Says Howard: “Our veterans are from the Vietnam era and were treated horribly when they came back. Veterans with certain issues tend to withdraw, and sometimes you have to work at it to get them back out there.”

Reaching Out

Goodwill is not the only organization lending a helping hand to veterans. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) helps veterans using the Homeland Assistance Program. The program assists military families by providing business and home repair services. The IBEW began the program in May of 2003 when Connie Higgins of the Heart of Illinois United Way sought to make an agreement with the Labor Council to provide plumbing, roofing and other home improvement services to families. “What we’re doing makes as much sense today as the day we started it in 2003,” says Mike Everett, president of the Labor Council. “We haven’t lost a single sponsor since the day we first began.”

Homeland Assistance sends out solicitations requesting funds in increments of no more than $500. “Money has never been an issue,” says Everett. “Contractors and other people we send out to do the job want to pay something. In the past, we have received hot water heaters and boilers. The Chicagoland Roofers Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee was able to put a roof on a home for about $1,000, which is incredible.” According to Everett, Homeland Assistance has spent just a little over $41,000 on 120 projects since 2003.

In order to accomplish project assignments, Everett and his team members dispatch contractors to perform repairs and also work with military liaisons from the Air Guard and the Marines. Volunteers, too, are always welcome. “You give people an opportunity to help, and the response will just blow you away,” he says.

Homeland Assistance engages in both in-state and out-of-state projects with counterparts in Bloomington and St. Louis. According to Everett, the team works hard and does everything from fixing a light to installing replacement windows. Military units and their families show appreciation for Homeland Assistance with flags, pictures, plaques and pins arranged in a permanent display case which graces the main entrance of the Labor Temple building in downtown Peoria.

Barracks to Boardroom

Veterans and their families are also indebted to Advanced Technology Services, Inc. (ATS) for allying itself with unemployed servicemen. According to Robert Avila, technical training manager at ATS, veterans come equipped with a host of skills esteemed among successful ATS employees, including electronic and maintenance skills. “Being in maintenance is the core of our business,” he says. “Last year, 36 percent of employees we hired were veterans. We find that veterans are very disciplined, professional and process-driven, and they are accustomed to a team environment.” According to Avila, ATS hires many of its veterans as managers or supervisors because the culture of the armed forces has equipped its servicemen for leadership.

Veterans who do not have a vast knowledge of maintenance or who have never worked in a factory can benefit from the ATS Multi-Skilled Technical Career Program. ATS has teamed up with Illinois Central College to provide veterans and non-servicemen with a 40-week accredited program that includes training in mechanical and electrical fields to prepare them for careers in highly automated manufacturing and process industries. Credit hours earned may be applied toward a two-year associate’s degree. Upon completion of the program, veterans and non-veterans receive a certificate and become full-time ATS employees. “We are building our future workforce,” says Avila. “The multi-skilled program involves taking knowledge and skill and transitioning it to the manufacturing environment. It’s a great transition for veterans who don’t necessarily come with the skills we need.” For more information on the career program, contact Robert Avila at 693-4045. You may also log on to advancedtech.com/ticket to submit an online application.

The ATS Recruitment Program, composed of 12 recruiters, four of whom are veterans, helps bring veterans onboard. Other programs ATS offers include the Vocational Rehabilitation & Employment Program (VR&E) and the Army PAYS Program. “Through the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Program, we partner with the Veterans Administration to train and hire disabled veterans,” says Stephanie Marshall, a Navy veteran and recruiter with ATS. In addition to VR&E, The Army PAYS Program helps ease the transition from barracks to boardroom by guaranteeing soldiers an interview with ATS after successfully completing their military obligation. Says Marshall: “The Army PAYS Program helps reassure veterans. With this initiative, a candidate will know that prior to joining the Army he’ll have ATS waiting to assist him should he decide to leave the Army after his initial enlistment.” She noted that ATS also keeps track of current service members who are planning to transition from the military in the upcoming year. When the time comes for a soldier to return, ATS is prepared to welcome him/her home.

Serving Our Soldiers

Like ATS, The Veterans Assistance Commission provides services to military veterans and their families, including financial aid, advocacy services and benefits assistance. Primary types of veterans assistance include the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the latter providing federal benefits for disabled veterans who may apply for a percentage of disability. Tammy Duckworth, Director of the Department of Veterans Affairs in Illinois and a veteran of the Iraq war, helped to create the Illinois Veterans Grant, funding that allows veterans to obtain 120 credit hours at any state-supported school, such as Illinois State University or the University of Illinois.

The Veterans Assistance Commission also provides programs to help veterans find employment. The Veterans Employment and Training Services sponsors the Hire Veterans First program. The Transition Assistance Program (TAP), run through the Illinois Department of Employment Security, also helps returning central Illinois veterans locate jobs. Other transition programs include Illinois Skills Match, an online electronic skills matching system that connects the skills a veteran has acquired in the military with a civilian job that demands such skills. “Unfortunately, many veterans have not been informed of the different programs available to help them,” says Carl Moulton of the Veterans Assistance Commission. “That’s why we’re doing all we can to help our former servicemen and women with their education and careers.”

For more information about ways to become involved with veterans assistance programs and other benefits, contact Carl Moulton at 495-5060. IBI

Subscribe to Peoria Magazines

Add new comment