March 28, 2012

Bill Nemitz: Veterans advance in line for jobs

By Bill Nemitz

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 "If it don't kill you, it'll make you stronger. As they've already learned."

(Continued on page 2)

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