Employment program aims to help vets

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Dozens of area businessmen and local government leaders — along with Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, state Sen. Doug Libla of Poplar Bluff, and state representatives Rick Francis of Perryville and Dale Wright of Farmington — gathered last Thursday at the Francis E. Robinson Training & Event Center in Perryville to hear details of a new program aimed at making it easier for veterans to find work in the construction field. The new program, dubbed “Contractors at the Wall, is a partnership between the Associated General Contractors of Missouri, the Wake Foundation and Poplar Bluff-based Three Rivers College. “Unemployment among veterans has more than doubled since September of 2019, with an average length of unemployment of 23.8 weeks,” said Len Toenjes, president of AGCMO and chairman of the Missouri Workforce Development Board. “At the same time, 80 percent of Missouri contractors are struggling to fill positions, and we have immediate construction jobs to fill. This program is a win/win for everyone.” The event, hosted by Robinson Construction, offered a venue for Toenjes, Wake Foundation founder Robert Wake, and Will Cooper, the department chair of Career Studies and Workforce Development at Three Rivers, to explain the goals of the program, designed to help fill the critical shortage of construction workers in southeast Missouri while also providing training and good paying jobs for veterans. Toenjes said Contractors at the Wall — a reference to Missouri’s National Veterans Memorial in Perryville, which features a full-scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. — will do just that. “I hear from contractors all the time,” Toenjes said, “asking, ’What are we going to do about this going forward? What are we going to do to try to make sure that we have skilled, responsible people to build all the projects, all the hospitals and roads and bridges and schools and everything that we’re going to need to keep our economy going and growing.’” At the same time, Toenjes said, he was hearing about veterans who need to find employment, get involved in society and transition back to civilian life, all things the Wake Foundation aims to do. Founded by Wake, himself a veteran who served and was injured in Iraq, the Wake Foundation — based at the Stars and Stripes Museum in Bloomfield — is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with partners across the country dedicated to the continuing support for wounded veterans and those battling fatigue, depression and post-traumatic stress. “We have a lot of veterans in the state of Missouri,” said Wake, 56, a Malden native and graduate of Three Rivers (2017) and Southeast Missouri State (2019). “Our hope and plan in the next year is to put 59 veterans to work in the construction field.” Wake said he doesn’t expect that goal to be hard to reach since many of the veterans the foundation serves are already trained as truck drivers or heavy equipment operators. “What we plan on doing is paying for their training and tools that they need on this [civilian] side,” Wake said. “We’re going to sponsor and donate the money from our foundation to be able to go ahead and get this program implemented and get it to working.”

Wake estimated the cost of the program at approximately $160,000. In addition, the foundation has received a $500,000 grant from the Missouri Workforce Development Department intended to pay the first three months of wages for veterans in hopes the company they’re working for will then hire them as full-time employees. “One of the things that I learned about PTSD and veterans, after being wounded myself and spending so much time in the hospital, the biggest key is getting them to work,” Wake said. “If we can get them to work, we can get them out of their homes and get them good jobs. “There’s no better satisfaction for these men and women that are soldiers, veterans, than knowing their families are being fed, the lights are on at home and they’re able to live a life that is fulfilling to them.” According to Cooper, Three River’s role will be to provide any necessary training to help veterans succeed in the program. “Three Rivers really prides itself in partnering and serving the community,” Cooper said. “We’re really excited to partner with the Wake Foundation and serve and train veterans, whether it’s construction or any other industry to get them out into the workforce to get some quality of life. We’re just really thankful to be blessed to be part of this.” Parson also made a brief address, praising the new program. “Our veterans deserve to live in a community that appreciate their service, in a state that honors their commitment and in a nation that never forgets their sacrifice,” Parson said. “Helping them find employment after the service is a big part. Parson called Missouri “a very veteran-friendly state” and highlighted the nearly 450,000 veterans who live here. “We have a lot of great resources in Missouri for our veterans, but unfortunately, some segments of our military continue to face challenges when it comes to fighting the war when they get out of the service,” Parson said. “What you’re doing, actually helping them find quality jobs, is just one way we can show our appreciation.” Those seeking more information on “Contractors at the Wall,” or who wish to apply for the program, contact Jackson Bostic, the AGCMO district representative for Southeast Missouri, by phone at 573-429-5278 or by email at JLbostic @agcmo.org.

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