Wednesday, April 16, 2014
How hard can it be?
Sterling Mathews is a reserve member of the military. He is unemployed and hasn't been able to find work since he returned from Afghanistan in 2011.
Gabe Souza / Staff Photographer
After 31 years of service in the military in one capacity or another, you'd think Chief Warrant Officer-2 Sterling Mathews of Gorham would have no problem landing a job in the private sector.
He knows how to analyze contracts. He knows how to deal with personnel problems -- like the two emotionally broken soldiers he recently shepherded from active duty into the Army's Wounded Warrior Program.
He even knows how to work under pressure -- as he did when he was in Kabul in 2010 and the thumps of incoming rockets occasionally shook his barracks.
So what has Mathews, 49, heard lately from Maine's job creators?
"Crickets," he replied with a rueful smile over a cup of coffee Thursday morning. "There are a lot of crickets these days."
Ten months ago, in a column about local efforts to help Maine's returning veterans parlay their many military skills into civilian jobs, I offered to turn this space into a "job wanted" ad for any out-of-work vet who needed a place to put his or her best boot forward.
Mathews was down at Fort Devens in Massachusetts at the time. He had a temporary full-time assignment with the Army Reserve's Career Division -- a job that included, among other things, helping soldiers with severe readjustment problems get the help they so sorely needed.
But that position evaporated in July with the start of a new fiscal year. And Mathews has been back in Maine ever since, firing off resume after resume to anyone and everyone who might need a procurement specialist, a personnel manager, a contract analyst ...
"I haven't been sitting on my hands," he said, sporting a jacket and tie after readily accepting my invitation to sit down and talk about his dilemma. ("Make pretend it's a job interview," I'd suggested.)
So, Maine business community, meet Sterling Mathews.
He grew up in Portland. The day after he graduated from Deering High School in 1982, he was off to Army basic training and an 18-month hitch in Germany.
After a year at Fort Devens, he left active duty, joined the reserves (where he remains to this day) and earned his bachelor's degree in business administration at the University of Southern Maine.
From there -- still doing his weekend-a-month-and-two-weeks-a-summer duty with the Reserve -- Mathews went to work. Three years with Time Warner Cable led to a job as an assistant manager with Walmart.
"I opened three Walmart stores -- in Augusta, Windham and Falmouth," he said.
His six years with the company also included stints as a corporate field trainer and a district manager for a Walmart specialties division.
Mathews' dream all along was to start his own business. He did that too -- earning his plumbing journeyman's license in the late 1990s and starting a sub-contracting business.
Along the way, he built his own home in Gorham. He and his wife (and high school sweetheart), Diana, raised two sons -- Michael and Jeff.
Then came Sept. 11, 2001. And with it, a redefinition of what it meant to serve in the Army Reserve.
Mathews got his call-up orders in 2004.
"I didn't volunteer," he said. "I got activated out of the reserves."
He headed for Fort Drum, N.Y., where his job with the 655th Area Support Group included processing the seemingly endless casualties from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
(Mathews' caseload included many a fellow Mainer, including those from the Maine Army National Guard's 133rd Engineer Battalion who were wounded and killed in the suicide bombing in a military mess hall in Mosul, Iraq, on Dec. 21, 2004.)
He rose to the rank of sergeant 1st class. Then, in 2007, he earned his commission as a chief warrant officer.
"We're the best-kept secret in the military," Mathews said. "We are the technical experts."
Experts who come in handy in a war zone: Mathews served with the Army Corps of Engineers in Kabul from April through October of 2010.
Unable to find work after leaving active duty, he returned to Afghanistan in January of 2011 as a civilian "procurement technician" for the Department of Defense. Translation: He analyzed bid proposals and contracts between the Army and contractors from the United States, Afghanistan, Turkey, China, South Korea ...
"It's financial -- and technical," Mathews explained, recalling how he'd create "matrixes" and "typical bell curves" to separate those who could actually do the work from those who claimed they could but, upon closer scrutiny, often couldn't.
That gig ended in the summer of 2011. Again, Mathews came home and looked for a civilian job. Again, the crickets.
Back to Fort Devens he went in early 2012 to work with the Army Reserves' Careers Division. Funding for that position ran out in July.
He's been back home in Maine ever since, knocking on doors and filling out whatever online employment applications he can find. At the same time, he just earned a master's-level certificate in government contracting from Webster University, where he's still working online toward a master's degree in procurement and acquisition management.
And get this: Over the last six months, Mathews has been granted one -- and only one -- job interview.
"And I didn't get the job," he said, forcing another smile.
So tell me, fellow Mainers, what's wrong with this picture?
How can a guy who's served his country for more than three decades, who's twice put himself in harm's way, who's performed the heartbreaking after-battle work that none of us like to think about, whose own 21-year-old son, Michael, is now serving bravely with the Army's 2nd Cavalry near Jalalabad in northeast Afghanistan, who likely knows more about procurement and government contracts than anyone down the hallway in your company's purchasing department, go month after month looking for work in his home state without so much as a call back?
"This is the world according to Sterling," Mathews said. "There are 700 people out there applying for the same job. They go through a computer, and if it doesn't say you're exactly what they're looking for, it kicks you out."
Sure, he's pushing 50. And sure, he's been gone from Maine so long that he has no inside connections anywhere.
And sure, as he reads news stories like this week's announcement that Scarborough-based Hannaford Supermarkets soon will lay off people in its corporate offices, Mathews cringes at the prospect of more job hunters flooding the already-anemic employment market.
But take my word for it, folks. To meet Sterling Mathews face-to-face for an hour is to understand he's no charity case. If you have a job that touches on his hard-earned skill set, don't you owe him at least a few minutes of your time?
"It would be nice if I could at least talk to somebody like I'm talking to you," Mathews said, finishing his coffee. "And then they could at least tell me to my face that they're going with some 25-year-old just out of college."
Here's a better idea.
Someone step up and hire this guy.
Sterling Mathews can be reached at email@example.com.
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: