Let’s start today with something we can all agree on: If there’s one thing that Maine’s Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans deserve now that they’re home, it’s a job.
“They may not have experience doing the job you’re looking to fill,” conceded Godfrey Wood, president and CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber, in an interview Tuesday. “But can you imagine a better trained, more loyal employee who understands what teamwork is?”
Having traveled to Iraq and/or Afghanistan four times to watch these men and women in action, let me attest that Wood knows of what he speaks.
And with the Iraq war now over and the one in Afghanistan at least winding down, I also concur wholeheartedly with Greg Small, a retired command sergeant major with the Maine Army National Guard, when he laments what he calls “a stereotype out there” of the modern-day war veteran.
“It’s because of what people read in the paper whenever a veteran does something bad,” said Small, now executive director for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve in Maine. “They see ‘Veteran from Afghanistan does something bad’ all over the front page.”
As opposed to what?
“Most of the employers I talk to who have veterans in their work force say, ‘Hey, if you could give me 10 more of these people, I’d hire them in a heartbeat,’ ” Small said Tuesday after helping to plan a veterans job fair for April 20 in Springvale.
Turn on the TV this morning and evening and you’ll hear a lot about the employment problems facing this country’s returning war veterans. “Hiring Our Heroes,” a joint effort of NBC and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, will highlight the “Today” show, the “NBC Nightly News” and “Dateline NBC.”
It’s all part of an effort to bring down a national unemployment rate for returning veterans that ranges from 12 to 17 percent, depending on who’s counting.
Here in Maine, the Portland Regional Chamber will roll out a campaign of its own on Thursday along with Maine first lady Ann LePage and Secretary of State (and war veteran) Charlie Summers.
“It’s all coincidental timing,” noted Wood, referring to the national effort. “Our efforts are focused on jobs, wellness and education — the three things that are of the highest value to these people.”
Starting, especially for the younger veterans, with the job.
According to the state Department of Labor, 132,000 veterans of all ages — 10 percent of the statewide population — call Maine home. And truth be told, their overall 7.6 percent unemployment rate in 2011 wasn’t that much higher than the general population’s jobless rate of 7.4 percent.
But drill a little deeper into the demographics and another picture emerges.
From 2005 through 2007, the average unemployment rate was 4.4 percent for Maine veterans ages 18 to 34. From 2008 through 2010 (the most recent data available), the rate more than tripled, to 14 percent.
Paul Chabot, who owns and operates Chabot’s Construction in Greene, can’t for the life of him fathom why.
Chabot, who served in the Army for three years in the early 1980s, hopes to land a contract in Portland soon that will require hiring 100 or more workers.
Is he looking for fellow veterans?
“Without a doubt, man,” he replied. “They’re my first priority.”
Chabot’s firm specializes in demolition, excavation, site preparation, pouring concrete — exactly the kinds of things many young Maine soldiers found themselves doing in places like Mosul or Kabul.
But what about those who might still need a little on-the-job training?
“C’mon down!” replied Chabot, whose website is www.chabotsconstruction.com. “If it don’t kill you, it’ll make you stronger. As they’ve already learned.”
The man has a point. If a 20-something kid can get through a year of mortar attacks (or worse), often-endless workdays and the automatic “Yes sir!” to anything the higher-ups throw his or her way, how hard can a civilian job here in Maine really be?
The problem is what Small calls the “soft skills” that many young soldiers, particularly those who enlisted right out of high school, never had a chance to develop.
“Most of these kids coming off deployment have never competed in the workplace before,” Small said. “And they don’t know how to translate their military skills into civilian language — that’s a real challenge for us.”
Back at the Portland Regional Chamber, CEO Wood said Thursday’s rollout will include free chamber membership for any local service member who deployed to Operation Iraqi Freedom or Afghanistan’s Operation Enduring Freedom, a volunteer mentor to accompany the veteran to the chamber’s frequent networking events, help with resumes and interview skills, health and recreational activities and even direct links to employers who are looking to hire.
“My goal on all of this, from the beginning, has been whatever we do, it should be totally free to these men and woman,” Wood said. “And that’s the way it’s going to be.”
Wood, in addition to his day job, chairs a company that soon will open a barbecue-chicken franchise at the Maine Mall.
The firm’s recent help-wanted ads specifically noted “OIF and OEF desired” — military speak for those who have served in either of the two war zones (or in some cases, both).
“We got four incredible resumes from vets,” Wood said. “Just by reaching out to them that way.”
Of course, no one can say with certainty how many Maine veterans are out there looking for work but unable to find it. But if Wood and the local chamber have proven anything, it’s that we’ll never know unless we take the time to ask.
So I’ll ask, too.
If you’re a Maine veteran who’s ready, willing and able to go to work, if only you could find an opening somewhere, shoot me an email — sorry, make than “send” me an email — at the address below.
Then, sometime in the near future, I’ll turn this space into your own personal job application.
Don’t worry about the punctuation or the spelling or all those acronyms that sound to us civilians like so much alphabet soup.
Just tell us who you are, where you served and, most important, what you did.
It’s a story all of Maine needs to hear.
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: [email protected]