A program of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce
443 Congress St., Portland 04101
Launched: March 2012
Chairman: Chris Tyll
Services: Free career assistance to veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, including mentoring, wellness services and chamber membership
Contact: 772-2811 www.portlandregion.com
On Nov. 21, 2011, President Obama signed into law the "Vow to Hire Heroes Act of 2011." The law amends and expands federal tax credits available to businesses that hire veterans who begin work after Nov. 22, 2011, and before Jan. 1, 2013.
Here's a summary of the changes:
Over the next five years, the civilian work force will be flooded with veterans returning from post-9/11 wars. This group, known as the Gulf War II generation, includes over one million veterans of the most recent Iraq war alone. If the current job market is any indication, these soldiers will return home to a new kind of battle — finding work. Recently, veterans in Maine and nationwide have struggled to show employers how military experience translates into civilian job skills. They've been shunted into entry-level positions because of their lack of civilian work experience. That's when they have found work at all.
The lost-in-translation challenge is particularly troubling in a state with the fourth-highest number of veterans per capita in the country. While the civilian population has been steadily thinning its jobless ranks, veterans who served since Sept. 11, 2001, have seen their jobless numbers go up from 11.5% in 2010 to 12.1% last year, according to a March report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That recent figure is nearly four points higher than the civilian unemployment rate. In Maine, though unemployment for all veterans has typically been on par with that of the civilian population, younger veterans have struggled — 14% of veterans between the ages of 18 and 34 were unemployed between 2008 and 2010, the most recent data available, outpacing the unemployment average of 10.6% for civilians of the same age.
"It's a serious situation in that this is some of our country's brightest and best," says Greg Small, executive director of the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, which helps Guard, Reserve and other veterans find work. Small says most of the veterans he works with are between the ages of 18 and 24 and look for six to 12 months before finding a job. "A lot of the young guys and girls graduate from high school and go to Afghanistan for a year and then find themselves back at home. So a good number of them have never participated in the work force. They don't have the soft skills, the resume skills, the interview skills, that type of thing."
Chris Tyll thinks he can help. A former Navy platoon leader who served four tours in Iraq, Tyll chairs the new Portland Veterans Network, a program the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce announced in March that provides free membership, mentoring and wellness services to veterans returning from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. The core of the effort involves pairing 50 Portland-area veterans over the next year with business leaders who will act as mentors, introducing the vets at networking events and guiding them in their job search. A host of businesses as well as Southern Maine Community College and the University of Southern Maine have offered free support, including resume and interview counseling and a camp retreat designed to help alleviate combat-related anxiety. It's all an effort to fight what Tyll believes is an insidious rift between returning soldiers and the civilian world.
"I transitioned out of the military knowing that I wanted to go into business for myself," says Tyll, who owns a Pat's Pizza franchise restaurant in the Old Port. "But the challenge that I faced — that I know a lot of veterans do — is the disconnect. You're taking a combat veteran who has a support network that went through the same experience and when you separate them, now they're on their own and now they're out on an island. As time went on, I had a disconnect with my family, and it took time to realize something's not right. It's something that I still work through today."
Days after the press conference announcing the Portland Veterans Network, Tyll arranges to meet three SMCC students who had served in Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom at the chamber's monthly Eggs and Issues breakfast in Portland.
Muscular and tanned, dressed in a polo shirt and khaki pants, Tyll stands out in the crowd of suited businessmen mingling before the meal. "They should be coming," he says, lingering by the door and craning his neck to look down the hall toward the Holiday Inn lobby.
Soon, people begin to take their seats to hear the speaker — today, Bill Burke, chairman of the Portland Sea Dogs — and Tyll, sighing and checking his cellphone, reluctantly follows. The young veterans never do show, but even after breakfast has been served, Tyll is on the lookout, scanning the ballroom packed with 200 or so chamber members.
"They say you can lead a horse to water…" Tyll trails off, frowning. "What we're going to have to do is really be proactive," he continues after some consideration. "This would be overwhelming to someone who's not used to it. But once we get them built up with their sponsors, then it's really going to get traction."
Tim Valliere is one of the young veterans who didn't come that morning. He says he had another meeting, but one wonders why he didn't tell Tyll and whether the disconnect Tyll worries about played a part in his absence.
Valliere, a 25-year-old former infantryman in the 82nd Airborne, joined the Army when he was 18 and was sent to Iraq at 19. On a routine patrol through Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, an improvised explosive device erupted under his Humvee. He says most IEDs blow up in front of you or behind you, far enough away to minimize damage. It's a rare stroke of bad luck for an IED to explode directly under you.
Valliere woke up in a hospital in Germany, dazed, ears ringing. It wasn't until he was sent back home to Portland that he was told his career in the Army was over. He was a fourth-generation military man who had planned to serve his entire life. He was 23 years old, and he was devastated.
Valliere then faced another hurdle — months of unemployment.
"I got really desperate for awhile," he says. "Unfortunately, nobody was hiring. I didn't translate my experience. Nobody understood what I did."
To be fair, Valliere sometimes didn't even tell employers what he did. He didn't want to talk about his discharge, so he sometimes left the five years spent in the military off of his resume. That time in his life just disappeared. But it was that or risk being asked about his injuries, which he couldn't bear.
"It's bred into us while you're in the Army that you're weak if you complain," he says. "And you never want to do that."
Eventually, Valliere decided school was a better option than the job market. He is now a student in political science at SMCC and the founder and president of SMCC's Veterans' Club. His injuries will likely be lifelong — tinnitus, chronic headaches, post-traumatic stress disorder and short-term memory loss — but he plans to run for public office to fulfill his dream of serving the people.
As Valliere speaks in the Center for Student Involvement and Leadership, a small office inside the SMCC Campus Center, his knees bob nervously under the table. He often turns his face away to avoid eye contact and glances at the door behind him when it opens. Other students, oblivious to him, stream in, talking and laughing. He says he tends to avoid the bustle of the Campus Center because he doesn't like being in large crowds of people he doesn't know. Overseas, that scenario was dangerous.
But as he talks about the future, Valliere settles into himself, levels his blue eyes, and the boyish jitters disappear. In their absence surfaces one of the benefits of combat experience — maturity and insight advanced for his age. He has the same idealistic charm as Tyll, who he hopes will become his Veterans Network mentor.
"While he's been successful, he's kept in mind the veteran, which is a huge plus," Valliere says of Tyll. "A lot of them coming out don't do that. A lot of them coming out, that's a part of their life and now it's over. But he wants to serve the community, which is the dream of us, it's the dream of most veterans getting out. He is the example of success to a lot of us."
About 132,000 veterans live in Maine, about 13% of the total population. Of those, about 9,000 are Gulf War II era veterans, the typically younger soldiers who often served grueling multiple tours of six to 18 months at a time. Nationwide, tens of thousands of these young veterans will be discharged by 2017 as the Pentagon reduces its military by about 124,000 and the United States withdraws its forces from Afghanistan.
In anticipation of this influx, JP Morgan Chase last year launched the "100,000 Jobs Mission," a call to private employers to hire 100,000 veterans by 2020. As of the end of March, 30 companies had joined the program, including Verizon, IBM and Delta Airlines, and 12,179 veterans had been hired, according to 100000jobsmission.com. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the International Franchise Association have made a similar pledge of 100,000 jobs by 2014.
In Maine, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce hosted the Hire Our Heroes job fair in November with 24 businesses and about 250 veterans. Local players like Pratt & Whitney, Poland Spring and Cianbro continue their long-standing practice of recruiting veterans.
The most far-reaching veteran-employment outreach comes from the state's CareerCenters. Since the 1970s, Maine's CareerCenters have been staffed with counselors who work exclusively with veterans. Last year, these counselors helped about 8,000 veterans revise resumes, search for jobs and improve their interview and networking skills. Veterans receive free one-on-one help from counselors like Mark Cafiso, a former recruiter and career counselor for the Army who has worked with about 100 veterans of all ages since he began the job at the Portland CareerCenter in October.
Cafiso is on the employment panel of the Portland Veterans Network but was not involved in its creation. He believes the mentoring the network will offer is exactly what his clients need. And it couldn't come at a better time — Cafiso's client base has grown by about 30% since January.
Most of his work with veterans involves tweaking their resumes to highlight military work — some vets bury their military experience in the middle of the resume and don't describe their specific job. He often encourages vets to cast their net wider than the private-sector equivalent of their military job.
He recently helped one young Marine who had worked in Iraq repairing communications infrastructure land a job as a manager at a private security firm, even though he had no civilian training in security. Cafiso advised the Marine to rewrite his resume to feature his top-secret clearance and hostile- personnel training as a supervisor of 40 communications technicians.
"He wasn't highlighting his skills," says Cafiso. "He thought, 'I have a communication job in the military and I can't find a job directly related to communication [outside of the military].' Most people don't open their minds to the fact that there are a lot of skills that are transferable to different civilian careers."
Kelly LaPierre of Gorham is a 34-year-old National Guard captain who served in Kuwait and Bosnia. He was discharged from active duty in 2006 after 15 years in the military and has spent the last six years bouncing from job to job in civilian and military organizations, or plodding through long stretches of unemployment. He says his only jobs that paid well and were interesting were temporary military jobs in recruitment offices. Although he had supervised 80 vehicle-maintenance workers and logisticians in the Guard, LaPierre could secure only entry-level positions in the private sector as a car detailer and a telemarketer. The most promising job — as a mutual fund accountant for Citigroup — dissolved after only a few months when the branch he worked in closed.
"It was a little bit harder than I thought," he says. "I thought people would jump at the opportunity to hire a veteran, but I had to take some substandard jobs to make ends meet."
LaPierre tried to do the right thing. He wrote his resume for civilian readers. He consulted with Greg Small of the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve. He even took a few graduate courses in public policy at the University of Southern Maine. Would a program like the Portland Veterans Network, should it expand to include more than Gulf War II veterans, appeal to him? Sure, he says.
"Any chance that you can find something outside of your own network and broaden your reach of potential opportunities, it's definitely a good advantage," he says.
In early April, LaPierre ended six months of unemployment when he started a job as a cellphone salesman for Verizon in Portland. He'd prefer to work in finance, but he'll give sales a try. It is a job, after all.