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Vets: Workforce Center Key to Land Jobs

George "Woody" Garner has several jobs listed on his resume -- cab driver, electrician, tattoo artist. He's been a college student, a bouncer and a maintenance man at an apartment complex.

Today Garner, a former Marine, works for Schmidt Construction Company, where he started as a laborer and worked up to a "Dirt Boss."

Although he's worked for Schmidt for four years, Garner, 37, only gained full-time employment in August. Before then, he worked seasonally when the weather permitted and when the company needed him.

"The workforce center put me in a position to work year round," Garner said.

In April, the Pikes Peak Workforce Center sent Garner to the Colorado Asphalt and Paving Association, where he became certified as an asphalt technician. Now, Garner earns a salary with paid vacation, holidays and health insurance.

"I'm way happier now because I have a 9-5 job," Garner said. "It's more comforting knowing that I'll still be able to work 40 hours a week in the winter."

For many veterans in the Colorado Springs area, this is not the reality.

Of the 9,667 veterans registered with the Pikes Peak Workforce Center, 6,967 are unemployed.

"By law, vets have priority on all services," said Terence Jackson, director of access services at the center. He said the Workforce Investment Act requires workforce centers across Colorado and the nation to have veterans programs.

The center works with 3,000 people each month, and more than 300 of them are veterans.

Every Wednesday, the center hosts workshops focusing on such things as online job searches and perfecting interview skills. Today's workshop is on how to apply for federal jobs.

A 2009 American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau showed that 71,866 veterans live in El Paso County. Unemployment among veterans in El Paso County hovers around 10 percent, a full percent higher than the county's average in 2009.

Organizations such as the workforce center help veterans, as well as civilians, get the education and training they need to secure jobs.

"The first time I went there I thought it would be a waste of two hours," Garner said. "When you see how much they work, they bust their butts to find veterans work."

Jerry Humphries, a former Army sergeant first class, received help from the center when he was laid off from his maintenance job in 2009.

"It was like a shadow over my head," said Humphries, who had worked at his job for six years. "I started looking for other work several months before the layoffs."

Humphries, 49, registered for classes in the water quality management program at Pikes Peak Community College. Thirty course credits later, he expects to receive his associate's degree in December. He is working a temporary job with Colorado Springs Utilities as a treatment plant operator.

"Hopefully real soon that will be a regular position," Humphries said.

While Garner and Humphries are considered success stories, many of their younger counterparts struggle.

Last month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that unemployment rates among new veterans during the first nine months of 2010 averaged 11.8 percent.

"The quicker they [new veterans] get to work, the quicker they get better," Garner said. "If they stay stagnant, that's when the bad things start happening."

Garner listed drugs, alcohol and post-traumatic stress disorder as some of the challenges veterans face when first leaving the military.

"You go from all this order to no structure," Garner said. "We're like children. We're looking for discipline, we're looking for order, we're looking for structure."

Despite his wish that employers would make hiring veterans a priority, Garner understands the economic struggles employers face.

"A lot of employers are looking at the bottom line," Garner said. "Just don't shut the door in their face. Even if it's something menial, give them the chance to impress you."

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