Jarom Vahai learned early on in the Marine Corps never to desert a fellow Marine in need. He's taken that credo with him back to civilian life.
The San Bruno resident formed a nonprofit last summer that's dedicated to helping veterans find green jobs, and the organization is already getting results. Green & Gold Careers for Veterans has found jobs for more than 40 people, and that number is about to increase dramatically.
Clear-Wall and Bauer's Intelligent Transportation, two companies that have established hiring pipelines with Green & Gold Careers, are about to embark on hiring sprees, and Vahai is developing a new partnership with Cisco Systems. That's on top of Vahai's work with Tesla Motors, which employed 48 veterans as of November, about a quarter of whom Vahai says were referred by his nonprofit.
Vahai, who's in his 30s, has accomplished all this despite spine and brain injuries suffered during two tours in Iraq that cause him debilitating pain and make it difficult to concentrate. And his success has come at great personal expense -- he's sunk roughly $30,000 from the military pension he earned after his medical retirement into his new venture.
Many veterans don't have professional networks built up outside the military, Vahai said, and they don't know where to look for jobs or how to convey their skills to prospective employers. He likened his new role to the way Marines cover for one another in combat.
"They have a lot of blind spots -- they don't know where the jobs are," he said of veterans who are re-entering the civilian world. "What I'm trying to do is cover those blind spots for them."
Marco Concepcion, 26, is one of roughly 37,500 veterans who live in San Mateo County. The Marine lance corporal said he struggled personally and financially after completing a seven-month tour of Iraq in 2005, but he found his stride last year after he was hired by Clear-Wall, applying the company's energy-saving films to building windows. He's making good money, and he's in line to supervise his own team when Clear-Wall finishes its current project at Genentech and moves on to its next contract.
"I never thought I would like it, but I'm loving it, although it is very exhausting," said Concepcion, who lives in South San Francisco. "You have to have dexterity and patience."
Clear-Wall employs five veterans right now, but that number will soon jump. The company expects to hire as many as 100 people over the next year, many of them veterans. CEO Norm Marchand said the company's performance improved dramatically once it made hiring veterans a priority.
"The military guys are all about doing it right," Marchand said. "They're just the easiest workforce that I've had work for me."
The founder of Bauer's Intelligent Transportation has come to a similar realization. The transportation service, which shuttles 6,000 people a day to and from Bay Area tech companies like Salesforce.com and LinkedIn on biodiesel buses, is poised to hire about 50 veterans as drivers, mechanics, dispatchers and supervisors.
"It's the perfect fit for what we do," said Gary Bauer, citing veterans' discipline and work ethic. "They fought for the country and served, and we need to do the right thing and give them the opportunity to get into the workforce."
The seeds for Green & Gold Careers for Veterans were planted in April, when Vahai, who at the time was head of Skyline College's veterans club, organized an Earth Day job fair with Tesla. The response from local veterans was so strong that Vahai decided to take a break from studying engineering and devote his full attention to finding work for others.
Vahai doesn't draw a salary from his two-person operation, which gets some support from fellow veteran nonprofits Swords to Plowshares and The Mission Continues as well as a private donor who works for Hewlett-Packard. There are some perks to be had, however. Vahai's success recently got the attention of the Obama administration, which invited him to the White House Christmas Party.
Vahai hopes to expand Green & Gold Careers and eventually get a full-time management team in place so he can step back from day-to-day operations. He wants to continue his education -- he's particularly interested in studying how ancient civilizations used their monuments as navigational tools.
For now, though, he'll continue to push ahead with his unexpected calling.
"I didn't go into it to make money," he said of his work. "We see our brothers suffering and we track that mission."