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Thursday, April 24, 2014 Vol. 77 No. 12

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Cover Story
Hiring Our Returning Heroes
| Ellen C. Wells
>> Published Date: 12/30/2013
Members of the U.S. Military are faced with unfamiliar territory and an uncertain mission when they’re deployed to a foreign land. The uncertainty continues, though, when service members are discharged and return home. Finding a job and easing back into civilian life are often their two most difficult missions.

Of the 1 million veterans currently unemployed in the U.S., 246,000 are veterans of post-9/11 conflicts. The unemployment rate for veterans in general hovers just below that of the U.S. unemployment rate, but for younger veterans, unemployment is about 10%. What’s more, the Veterans Opportunity to Work (VOW) Act of 2011, which provides funds for retraining returning military, expired at the end of December 2103 at press time. With the U.S. Department of Labor estimating nearly 160,000 military members being discharged on a yearly basis, the country’s veteran unemployment rate is in danger of increasing, with fewer government resources to help them train for and find jobs.

One Hero’s Mission
It’s Antonio St. Lorenzo’s mission to help veterans find meaningful employment as they return to civilian life. As a Vietnam veteran himself, he’s dedicated the last 30 years to helping his fellow veterans who need a hand, whether they’re homeless, disabled or less fortunate. Antonio’s latest effort to help veterans is with the establishment of Boot Camp Farms, an urban agriculture company in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The for-profit company recently broke ground last fall on an 80,000 sq. ft. computer-controlled Nexus greenhouse outfitted for hydroponic production of leafy greens and tomatoes. While Dutch and Israeli hydroponic growers have told him he could operate the entire facility with just two people, Antonio’s point is to create jobs for veterans, and he plans on hiring up to 40 former military personnel to run production.

“All I work with is veterans,” he says. “It touches my soul.”

Antonio had looked at establishing a business in other industries, such as construction, but all signs pointed to agriculture. “I looked at construction and it wasn’t right for me as far as being a veteran knowing about post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and I work with a lot of people with PTSD,” Antonio says.

Agriculture, on the other hand, is on the more relaxing side of hands-on job opportunities. Antonio says psychiatrists are now realizing agricultural jobs are therapeutic. “A guy’s working every day, he’s watching, he’s concentrating,” says Antonio. “He’s not focusing on other things.” The hydroponic nature of the facility will allow production and employment to be a year-round activity, keeping these veterans employed full time.

Producing hydroponic crops is also a matter of food safety. “Why should we have all these guys out of work while we’re buying billions of dollars worth of food from other countries?” Antonio asks. “Do we know it is safe? No. Let’s grow it ourselves.” This is, in part, a continuation of a veteran’s mission.
Boot Camp Farms has arranged for the University of Connecticut’s agriculture department to use an on-site community center to train greenhouse workers as certified hydroponic farmers. They will also train disabled veterans, as the facility is computerized and outfitted for individuals with differing challenges. One of Antonio’s goals is to provide all veterans—fully abled or otherwise—with a career, not just a job.

A Long Road Ahead
Richard Lamoureux of Lamoureux Greenhouses in Brookfield, Massachusetts, is also a veteran of the Vietnam War. He worked construction for many years after returning home from the war, but a friend’s greenhouse intrigued him. “Seeing everything from start to finish was pretty amazing, and I liked the fulfillment of that,” Richard says. He attended a landscaping college soon thereafter and set up a home and small greenhouse with the help of his GI benefits.

After 35 years, Richard says he still loves the business and loves the industry. The money, on the other hand, isn’t the greatest. And that concerns him when it comes to returning veterans looking to get into the industry. “Do you think veterans, after spending three or four years in Afghanistan, can come home and work in an industry that only pays $8 an hour?” Richard says. “It’s not a high-paying industry. If you don’t like it and want to be here, it’s a difficult industry to be in.”

Tops In Training
Richard says the regimentation and pride in a job done well that he learned in the military has helped him in an industry that requires its owners and workers to have a certain amount of dedication and perseverance. Matt Smith of Serene Gardens in Grand Island, New York, has seen those same characteristics in several of the military members he has employed this past year.

“Three of the four have been three of my best employees,” Matt says of the two that worked in his landscaping department and one that worked in the cafe. One vet in particular, a Marine, sticks out in his mind as exemplary. “He was really good because he was able to see what needed to be done and then do it, which is nice to see because there are some people who just can’t see that,” Matt says.

Matt feels that former military are often well-suited for any job. The attributes that shine are the ability to take directions well, their friendliness with customers and an aptitude for working with their hands. He says they also have a sense of teamwork, which certainly comes in handy on a landscaping crew and in a garden center. Another characteristic of veterans is that they are often in very good shape and are accustomed to working outside in hot weather.

What to Watch For
The fourth former military member Matt employed revealed the need to be more scrutinizing when hiring veterans, or anyone for that matter. “It’s not necessarily true that every person in the military is amazing,” Matt says, whether or not it’s the effects of PTSD or other previous issues in the person’s life. “He’s the one who opened my eyes to the fact that they’re still human beings and not all of us are perfect.” As such, educating oneself to the signs of PTSD and depression and how to vet former military is key prior to going through the application process.

Antonio says if you hire a veteran, you’ll never regret it. He understands that many employers are wary of hiring veterans due to the possibilities of someone suffering from PTSD. “Everyone suffers from PTSD, but we’re functioning,” he says. “You can medicate a guy, but you need to give him something to do to keep his mind occupied, and you’ll have one of the best workers. Veterans can do anything.” GP

Veteran Resources
There are a number of resources available to both employers and veterans to assist in employment opportunities. Check out any of the resources below for more information on local job fairs, finding one-to-one connections, how to hire veterans and much more.
  • Department of Defense Hiring Heroes Program
  • Hiring Our Heroes—a U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation
  • Next Step for Vets from NBCUniversal
  • Veterans Administration
  • The White House Business Council’s Guide to Hiring Veterans
  • Hire Heroes USA

Ask Antonio
Have a regret about hiring? Want to know more about how to vet a veteran before beginning the application process? Antonio would be happy to help. Reach out to Bootcamp Farms at info@bootcampfarms.com for queries concerning hiring and managing former military.

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