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Geared Toward Employment

Pima County opens a new center dedicated to helping veterans find work

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As wartime situations across the globe decrease, and the need for an overstocked U.S. military lessens, countless American soldiers are coming home.

For those veterans who are also exiting the service, this means having to dive into the employment pool after years—and sometimes decades—of guaranteed work and pay.

Some estimates put the number of vets returning from Afghanistan and Iraq and returning to the employment pool at more than 1 million nationwide, contributing to a national unemployment rate for vets that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says was 12.7 percent in May 2012.

Pima County officials believe there are about 130,000 veterans here locally. While numerous services are made available to residents who have served in the military, none of those services was exclusively dedicated to job placement.

The Kino Veterans' Workforce Center aims to change that. The facility, an offshoot of Pima County's One-Stop Career Center, had a soft opening on Monday, July 16, in an office set up next door to the Kino Service Center at 2797 E. Ajo Way.

"What we want to do is create an atmosphere where vets can come and feel welcome," said Art Burrola, who is serving as program manager for the Workforce Center. "We've always dealt with veterans in the One-Stop (center), but we hadn't targeted them for help before. This is really geared toward employment."

Burrola, a Vietnam War veteran, said the Workforce Center's launch is being patterned after the launch of the One-Stop center, which began years ago when Art Eckstrom created the program in hopes of getting out-of-work miners the tools they needed to return to gainful employment.

The center is a joint effort between Pima County, local organizations such as Pima Community College, and state and federal entities like the Arizona Department of Economic Security and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

"It would be beneficial, I think, to any veteran to get job-assistance," said Pepe Mendoza, a spokesman for the local Veterans Affairs office.

A grand opening is planned for the center sometime in the fall, but for now, Burrola is hoping to get some early walk-in traffic, and then let word-of-mouth and referrals increase the number of visits.

Stephen Gillette said he was flipping through TV channels on Sunday night when he saw "a little blurb" about the Workforce Center's opening, prompting the 49-year-old Tucsonan to check it out. The former Army reservist and Naval seaman said he's been out of consistent work since moving home from Seattle in December.

"My expectations are very low," said Gillette, who cited the Pacific Northwest weather as a reason why he left what he considered a good job, doing facilities management for Delta Airlines at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. "I've been hopping around (jobs) since."

Gillette said he considers the job market tough for veterans, because most veterans have families they're trying to support, while most employers are looking for workers willing to work for cheap.

"Fortunately, I'm in a position where I don't have to support anybody," said Gillette, who lists abilities related to metal works among his skill sets.

The veterans' center will hopefully provide 11-year Army vet Dennis Nelson with an opportunity for a second career, via an education grant to take classes at Pima. The former nurse lost his job 11 months ago and had been working with the One-Stop Career Center on grant opportunities when the veterans' center opened.

"I think this is great," said Nelson, who is hoping to take a one-year program at Pima to become a counselor for people with substance-abuse issues. "I'm looking for a change."

Burrola said the Workforce Center hopes to draw a variety of vets, ranging from those who volunteered for military service over the past 30 years to draftees from the Vietnam era who are struggling to stay afloat. He said the center will hopefully also draw interest from what he called "drafted reservists," people who joined a reserve corps and wound up getting sent overseas.

"This is a whole new set of veterans we're dealing with," he said.

In addition to helping individuals find jobs, Burrola said he's hoping the center can partner with local employers to encourage them to hire veterans. Employers who hire unemployed veterans between now and Jan. 1 can get anywhere from $2,400 to $9,600 per hire in federal tax credits, depending on the veteran's employment history and disability situation.

Most of the workforce's funding comes from federal grants, Burrola said, similar to how the One-Stop Career Center operates. However, a grant the county had received for the past six years ran out on June 30, and he said it won't be known until July 27 whether his office will be approved for a new grant that will provide $1.2 million in funding over the next three years.

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