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Tue July 20, 2010
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Green Jobs for Vets Program Shows Signs of Success

Syracuse, NY – Greg Gerst is a 41-year-old veteran who was born and raised in Central New York. He calls himself a country boy through and through. This Air Force vet is not all serious, he knows how to have fun.

I'm a big karaoke man, let me tell you, I am the man," said Gerst, who calls himself a Neil Diamond fanatic.

Greg Gerst has a lot of work experience. He's been a tire changer, an asbestos remover and even installed walk-in freezers. An incident with his last gig sent him to the back of the unemployment line. But providing for his two sons was pretty strong motivation for him to shape up and get back on his feet.

"That's what I do everything for right now, my kids. I just know the struggles that I've gone through. I get a little emotional on this topic. I just don't want them to struggle," said Gerst.

So, Gerst hooked up with "A Different Shade of Green." That's the program that trains low income and unemployed veterans from Central New York to work in the green and technology sectors.

Rachna Vas wrote the grant that funds the program. She's with the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Onondaga County. She says there is a lot of untapped potential in veterans coming back from recent conflicts.

"Many of these veterans have amazing skill sets. They had built villages and hospitals and were very closely engaged with countries, with populations overseas to help build cities and infrastructure," said Vas.

To add to that experience, the 10-week program gives participants a chance to earn certifications in areas like forklift safety, horticulture basics and computer skills.

They also get coaching on workplace professionalism. Vas says they sometimes have to start from scratch. Some don't even have an email address.

"Or if they did have an email address, it was something inappropriate like letsgetdown@aol.com,' or something like that and we really had to go back to basics," said Vas.

With that sort of help, veteran Greg Gerst was able to land a job at Northeastern Electronics in Elbridge. Dave Boudreau, the company's quality manager, says they make custom wiring for a variety of companies like IBM.

But more importantly, the cables they produce are used on military contracts.

"Just about any soldier that's been out there, been deployed anywhere, has seen or used one of our units," said Boudreau.

Sometimes Greg Gerst says working on those units has him thinking back to his time in the Air Force and how important quality control really is.

"I literally watched a KC-10, which is the equivalent to a 747 commercial, blow up on the flight line," said Gerst, who says experiences like that one made his first day at Northeastern feel easy. "They were like former military? Yeah, we can't do nothing to you, you're going to adapt well here.'"

So can any unemployed vet do the program Gerst did to get a job? Not quite. There are only 120 slots.

Every chair should be filled because vets on average have a higher unemployment rate than non-veterans according to the Labor Department. But despite that, Cornell Cooperative's Rachna Vas says there are still empty chairs.

"To qualify for this program, you have to be unemployed and you have to be designated low income. The Department of Labor has set criteria as to how one is designated as a low income candidate for this program," said Vas. Vas says those requirements mean turning away many veterans who could benefit from this program.

And then there's the small handful of vets who leave the program early because they're still dealing with issues like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Vas says if she had to write the grant all over again, she would have included a full time social worker to help participants deal with those issues.

"We have seen outbursts in the classroom. We have seen people dealing with traumatic issues events and trying to confront those issues in the classroom has been problematic," said Vas.

Vas says an occasional outburst doesn't overwhelm the program's success rate. She says so far, everyone who has gone through the program has gotten at least one job offer.

Vas is hoping the evidence is compelling enough that the Labor Department will want to renew the experiment. But with stimulus dollars sunsetting, the future of the program is uncertain.