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An Indianapolis program aims to upgrade veteran’s careers as some face poverty, high inflation

A man in plad jacket receives a black folder with a ribbon on it from a woman wearing a mask and white dress. A stage with the American flag on it can be seen behind them.
Courtesy of HVAF
Jeremiah Jett receives his certificate after completing the first phase of VetWorks.

About 8 percent of Hoosier veterans under 65 live in poverty, according to 2020 five-year census estimates. That ranks in the middle compared to other states, but 2021 estimates also show Indiana has one of the nation’s better veteran employment rates.

Indianapolis-based Helping Veterans And Families (HVAF) is trying to assist veterans' efforts to find or upgrade their jobs through a program called VetWorks. On Friday, 23 veterans “graduated” from phase one of the VetWorks program.

During the first of three phases, participants got resume help, financial literacy courses and more while they work a paid internship at HVAF or one of the employers it partners with. They can get a $3,000 stipend for 10 weeks or get paid hourly depending on where they end up.

Carl Ware, 55, left the Navy in 2006 after 20 years. He was one of the VetWorks graduates on Friday.

He got an associate’s degree in networking and worked as a contract IT educator after returning to civilian life. Joining the VetWorks program was still necessary, he said, “to help me achieve my goal of getting my bachelor's degree.”

The first phase has already helped Ware get government IT work, he said, while finishing that cybersecurity degree at Indiana Tech.

“I am at a job that I've been chasing for years,” Ware said. “[HVAF was] able to help out with financing [for college] and things like that, and also a lot of guidance. Because once you're in the service, you have to use your benefits and if you don't use them at a certain time you lose your benefits.”

Kristin Burch is VetWorks’ coordinator at HVAF. She said some participants, like Ware, just need a bit of help connecting with employers. Others need more.

“Some individuals are to the point of just getting back on their feet. Whereas others might be on their feet, but need a little tiny bit of extra support to get where they want to be,” Burch said. “So we're just assisting them in self-sufficiency and providing the support to get there.”

The veterans participating in the program also have a variety of housing and economic needs, she said. HVAF is “housing-first” in its approach, she said.

“So it's phenomenal like that, we can say, ‘hey, we can cover your rent, we can help with this. So you can actually do something that you really wanted to do,” Burch said.

Jeremiah Jett is a VetWorks participant who received housing help from HVAF. That was critical, he said, in allowing him to take full advantage of the job program and further his education.

“I've been in communal living ever since 2018,” he said. “Having your own place and getting to this point after what I've struggled with is wonderful. And then I am here on the east side of Indianapolis and school is technically about a 10-minute drive from here.”

He struggled with alcohol addiction after he left the army in 1993. He will graduate with a master’s degree in psychology at Martin University next month and aims to become an addiction counselor.

He also now has a full-time job at Landmark Recovery after finishing a paid internship at another addiction support organization through VetWorks.

“I'm 51 years old. And alcohol has played a major part in a lot of my setbacks. But I think I see light at the end of the tunnel now and everything's going really well,” he said.

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VetWorks has only been around about a year and a half, coordinator Burch said.

“I would really like to increase not only enrollment but also our graduates. We are graduating 23 veterans today. And last year, it was 11,” she said. “So it's extremely exciting. Our hope is to, of course, get those higher paying jobs for our veterans and start them in a career.”

But the program has also had to adjust to the toll inflation has been taking on some participants.

“We have increased our stipend and hourly wage and with our phase one, we have developed our own pantry, any resources that we can help to support them,” Burch said. “[We are] making sure the hourly wage is where it needs to be when they [finish VetWorks]. We want them to be at least $18, $19 an hour. And in the start, in the beginning of [their] career. We've seen a few areas where it's been a little short of that.”

But, she said some participants have already seen growth in their salaries after joining companies at an entry-level.

Participants who choose to continue to phase two will “select and complete an educational or training program” with their tuition and expenses covered by VetWorks. Roscoe Brown is planning to get training to become a peer counselor.

He served as a cook in the army during the '70s. After leaving in 1978, he continued cooking for work.

“There will always be jobs for cooks,” he said. But after hearing about another veteran’s work as a peer counselor, he wanted to shift careers. “I've been through a lot in my life. And so I figured that at my age I can pass down a lot of wisdom and help people. And the VetWorks program presents an opportunity and they have a great platform for me to do so.”

He already had a general studies bachelor’s degree and said he could have made the shift on his own, but VetWorks “has enriched, empowered me a little bit more, to be able to be a better person and do the job they've set before me.”

The third and final phase of the program “is all about placement and retention,” Burch said. "We follow our veterans for up to a year assisting them with any support that they might need during that time. And that includes like hey, maybe I need some tools to get started in this … a uniform or boots or anything like that.”

The program is funded by a $4.7 million five-year grant from the Lilly Endowment.

Disclosure: The Lilly Endowment also provides funding for Indiana Public Broadcasting News

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said 26 veterans "graduated" from the program Friday. That was incorrect. There were 23 veterans who completed the program.

Contact reporter Adam at arayes@wvpe.org or follow him on Twitter at @arayesIPB.

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Adam is Indiana Public Broadcasting's labor and employment reporter. He was born and raised in southeast Michigan, where he got his first job as a sandwich artist at Subway in high school. After graduating from Western Michigan University in 2019, he joined Michigan Radio's Stateside show as a production assistant. He then became the rural and small communities reporter at KUNC in Northern Colorado.