Patty in the News

Years ago, Brett Olson's father came home from a stint in the Navy and struggled to stay afloat.

The family was living in a friend's basement apartment as weeks of unemployment turned into months.

"Even as a kid," said Olson, now 52, "you could absorb the stress."

There's a lot of that going around this military-rich area — and this country — as soldiers return from Iraq and Afghanistan to find that the country they had been fighting for can't give them jobs in return.

The unemployment rate for returning veterans ages 18 to 24 reached 21 percent last month, according to the U.S. Labor Department. That's a significant increase from just two years ago, when the unemployment rate among veterans of that age group was 14 percent.

Now a local electricians' union is throwing bright light on the problem.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 46 in Kent is sponsoring the Veterans in Construction Electrical (VICE) program, an apprenticeship program that provides a year's worth of training in just 12 weeks.

Union member Olson has been key. He's helped to get the apprenticeship standards changed to give direct entry to vets (instead of the usual three-month wait), and persuaded the members of Local 46 to kick in 58 cents an hour into training costs.

A few members quibbled over the funding and the veterans-only approach, Olson said, but overall, "It was welcomed with open arms because a lot of those contractors were vets and knew what it was like to come home to no jobs."

The program got an extra boost last month, when U.S. Sen. Patty Murray visited with VICE trainees. Last week she introduced the Veterans Employment Act of 2010 — the first legislation to try to stem rising unemployment rates among veterans.

The bill would, among other things, allow returning veterans to use the Post-9/11 GI Bill for worker-training programs. It also would create programs that find ways for them to build on the skills learned in the military, and market themselves as civilians.

The VICE program is a welcome model that Olson hopes is adopted by the pipe fitters', sheet metal, ironworkers' and other unions.

Dustin Eberle, 27, a former Army corporal, is part of the current VICE class — the third since the program started last year.

He likes being in the classroom with those who have walked his same path, and learning a new trade.

"I like that overwhelmed feeling of learning something new," he said. "And it's very supportive. All of us have been over there. What's better than being in a room where you're all on the same wavelength?"

Carl Sorells, 32, served in the Marine Corps Reserve and is still in the National Guard. He came home from Iraq last May, spent eight months on medical leave, and then started looking for a job.

"The red tape is almost crippling," Sorrels said. "But this program is off to the races. You're actually doing something that makes you feel like you're moving forward."

Sorrels appreciates the support of his fellow veterans, and the union that is training him.

"This helps with re-entry," he said. "You're blending into the civilian sector but surrounded by people who understand what you're thinking."

Eberle, who lives in Bothell with his girlfriend, said the VICE program has helped him feel "rooted."

"I have a clear picture of what's going to happen to the rest of my life," he said. "That's a huge thing for me."

Olson feels like he's helping men like his father.

"The biggest honor of my life is to do this," Olson said. "There's nothing better than putting vets to work."

- Seattle Times