A Bridge to Employment for Veterans

While SUS was recruiting for the pilot ‘Tug and Barge’ program run through SUNY Maritime College, John Lang was referred for screening as a candidate. Mr. Lang, a former Army Avionic Mechanic honorably discharged after 6 years of service, had fallen on difficult times which forced him to relocate to a homeless shelter. At his screening, he shared that his ideal occupation would be “Tug boat captain, working on the water and with my hands.”

With the right credentials and an enthusiastic and positive attitude John was accepted into the program. Thanks to a generous grant from the PIMCO Foundation, John’s course was paid for in full. This opportunity became John’s bridge to the job of his dreams.

Many people, when introducing themselves for the first time, give their name and then state what they do for a living, supporting the notion that work not only defines who we are but too, how we think society values us. SUS believes that serving the needs of the individual must go beyond providing shelter and food to helping them secure a job that gives meaning to the day and to life.

A large number of the veterans SUS serves have mental health conditions as well as other comorbidities that affect their ability to obtain and retain employment. In many cases, being unable to retain employment because of these conditions has led to a loss of income, and put long-term housing stability in jeopardy.

In the Fall of 2013, to address this challenge SUS’ Veterans Division brainstormed operational concepts that would increase employment options for this population, through educational programs readily available in New York City. This took into account the following realities:

  • The time commitment of an associates or baccalaureate program necessary to attain the next level of professional potential is often difficult for veterans who are already juggling so much as they reintegrate after service into their families and communities.
  • Veterans making the choice to pay for school themselves, in the absence of a Veterans Administration (VA) or state funded opportunity, risk placing themselves in financial straits and therefore are at greater risk of homelessness. (This is particularly true as the VA has defunded the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program (VRAP) as of March 2014.)
  • Courses need to be targeted toward employment options that are realistic and available at reputable institutions of higher learning.

Coincidentally, CUNY Hostos Community College’s Continuing Education Department was also grappling with these issues, given the pending sundown of VRAP funding. (Hostos’ Veterans Services personnel was focused on matriculated students and not on the continuing ed department, leaving those veterans woefully underserved.)

SUS’ Veterans Services staff reached out to CUNY Hostos and together determined that a position was needed on the ground at the college that would help to identify needs that could be met through the breadth and depth of services provided at SUS (housing, mental health and wellness). The creation of the Veteran Education and Employment Specialist (VEES) to ensure that these needs were being met, allowed the veterans to focus resources on education and food security, and to give attention to their studies.

As the veterans approach graduation, the VEES ensures that the SUS Veteran Employment Team, made up of a case manager and employment developer focuses on employment options for the veteran in an associated industry. Provided that the housing stability is adequate, the Employment Team is better informed to help the veteran find placement in their newly chosen profession, with a freshly minted certification from a recognized provider of that training.

Over the past year, SUS has had no less than 50 veterans or their family members served in this manner at Hostos alone. The role of the VEES has since been expanded to include supporting students at CUNY’s Borough of Manhattan Community College and LaGuardia Community College.

Over time, SUS looked at other opportunities in continuing education outside of the CUNY system that could lead to direct employment. This past summer SUS was approached by SUNY Maritime College to discuss the tugboat training program that they had on the books. When this course was last run three years prior it had only a 10% graduation rate. In large part the low rate of success was due to students being ill suited to the rigors of a life at sea, drug use, criminal backgrounds, or mental health challenges that could not be managed in a maritime environment.

Using the experience of Hostos, SUS and the SUNY Maritime College reverse engineered the recruitment process to increase the chance of pre-screened candidates completing the course of study and gaining a high level of confidence of finding employment in the tugboat industry. This approach also mollified the angst felt by many employers that veterans might experience post-traumatic stress (PTSD) to a degree that would make them ill-suited to serving as professional mariners.

John Lang was among this year’s class of 12 students, all of whom graduated and are now receiving their final U.S. Coast Guard certifications such as firefighting and documentation, as well as approvals from the Department of Homeland Security Transportation Branch. SUS anticipates an equally high success rate for the veterans finding employment in the tugboat industry.

SUS has been able to leverage this success to acquire foundation funding to help with “micro scholarships” for veterans in continuing education, allowing leadership staff at SUS to sit on a scholarship committee with trusted partners at the schools to help identify students most in need.

SUS believes this model of partnership between educational institutions and the service provider is a replicable one. By leveraging the unique capabilities that each partner brings to the table a comprehensive approach can be made and hopefully an equally successful outcome for those we serve can be achieved. At the end of the day it is all about ensuring that people like John are able to meet outcomes that give them full and enriching lives.

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