Published: October 4, 2013
During his career as an Army cook, 31-year-old John Hamlin has served as a personal chef to the likes of Donald Rumsfeld and foreign dignitaries during their visits to Fort Bliss, Texas.
Now stationed at Fort Carson, Hamlin works the night shift, baking bear claws and doughnuts so soldiers can have sweet treats each morning.
He once aspired to be a top-notch chef.
Now he's burnt out.
"I'm ready to do something different," the sergeant said Sept. 13 as he fashioned a window frame.
"I'm tired of being away from my family a year at a time during deployments."
Hamlin and fellow veterans were working to build a miniature house - part of their homework for a new veterans' construction certificate program.
The industry training program is offered by Pikes Peak Community College in partnership with AspenPointe, a local nonprofit that helps down-on-their-luck veterans get - and stay - on their feet.
For a little over $1,000, veterans of any age, service branch and discharge status can complete the 120-hour program, which blends classroom instruction with hands-on projects.
At the end of the course, veterans should have a basic grasp of industry standards and skills, as well as the certifications they'll need to work on a job site, organizers say.
"A lot of veterans need a job really quick," said Jonathan Liebert, vice president of AspenPointe's enterprises division. "So we decided to put together a 'let's get you in, get you out' program, and then hopefully they learn more when they get on with an employer."
Still in its pilot phase, the program just graduated its third class.
Very few of its 21 graduates have paid tuition out of their pockets. Often AspenPointe, using its funds - or funds from the USO or Coors Foundation - picks up the tab, he said.
"The hope is that after we've gone through this pilot phase, we've secured some funding for scholarships, some funding for materials," Liebert said. "Then we can keep doing these classes."
If the VA approves the program, veterans will be able to use their GI Bill benefits to pay for the class, said Debbie Sagen, Pikes Peak Community College's director of extended learning and a member of AspenPointe's board of directors.
"We're hoping to hear back any day now," she said.
In January, the college and the nonprofit banded together to launch the program.
Pikes Peak had wanted to offer a construction course for veterans for awhile, but didn't have the facilities its students would need.
"At the time we thought it would be an associate's degree for credit," Sagen said. "What they found when they talked to people in the home-building industry is that's not where the needs were, that home builders needed entry-level workers."
College staff came up with the idea of an industry-training program. Sagen approached AspenPointe to see if it would be interested in lending tools from a similar but defunct program and space in its newly purchased warehouse.
The nonprofit happily obliged.
"Then it all started coming together," she said. "We had eager vets, and we had a pilot program."
AspenPointe also agreed to match each student with a peer navigator, an AspenPointe employee who counsels veterans and helps connect them with services in the community.
The Housing and Building Association of Colorado Springs came on board, offering to meet with each student, distribute his resume and connect him with potential employers.
So far, 70 percent of the program's graduates have received an employment offer of $15 an hour or greater within a week of graduation, Liebert said.
The Peer Navigator program continues to follow up with both participants and employers for at least a year. If a veteran encounters an obstacle - perhaps he needs mental health services or his car breaks down, making it impossible for him to drive to work - a peer navigator will find assistance for him.
If an employer has questions or concerns about a veteran - how to handle a veteran's memory issues due to traumatic brain injury or moodiness due to post-traumatic stress disorder - he can also contact the peer navigator for help.
"Telling employers that these vets' peer navigators will be along side them as they start a job really helped employers to say, 'OK, I know that you're still with them, and I can call you and have a conversation with you about what's happening," Sagen said. "I think that made them more willing to accept a vet who may have come out having had a difficult time, which is great. That's exactly what this program is intended to do."
The program also benefits local businesses, Liebert said.
"Folks here in Colorado Springs want to hire veterans," he said. "They want to know where to get them. There's a pipeline we want to build. We want to tell employers, 'We have access to vets, and we can tell you who else has access to vets.'"
Hamlin has received two calls from employers who are interested in hiring him.
He had to turn them down because he's still on active duty. His command allowed him to attend class because he'll soon leave the Army.
But being wanted feels nice, he said.
"The course gave me enough knowledge to be confident on the job site," he said. "I already have a sense of job security."