College training veterans as welders, electricians, drivers
By MIHIR ZAVERI | Houston Chronicle | Published: March 8, 2015
HOUSTON (Tribune News Service) -- Every day for six weeks, Kurtis Cox, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, practiced welding at Lone Star College's North Harris campus.
While he'd never tried his hand at it before enrolling at Lone Star, the 27-year-old Tomball resident can now rattle off which metals suit various temperatures, the pros and cons of different types of welding machines and the challenges of welding at different angles.
"I didn't even know about it and now look at me," Cox said on a recent Wednesday, clad in a light khaki jacket and holding a Monster energy drink.
He is among dozens of veterans enrolled in a Lone Star College program that helps veterans translate their military skills into high-paying workforce jobs created by the state and regional economy. It's part of a bigger push to beef up programs that get veterans, many of them returning from overseas, quick and effective job training in careers such as oil and gas drilling, truck driving and electrical technology.
"We want you to work in Texas," said Kenya Crawford, director of continuing education at the North Harris campus who is overseeing the programs. "We want you to be able to get a good job that will continue to help you provide for your family in the real world."
An approximately $175,000 grant from the Texas Workforce Commission that runs through August is expected to help train 90 veterans as welders and electricians. Another $74,000 or so from the Texas Department of Transportation is helping train some 30 truck drivers. And a $150,000 grant awarded in December that's part of a program called College Credit for Heroes will help 40 veterans graduate and get jobs, in part by awarding them college credit for their military training.
"Our veterans graciously serve the country for us, they made the ultimate sacrifice that we did not do," said Sabrina Lewis, the director of veterans affairs at Houston Community College, which is sharing the grant from the workforce commission. "These programs are in correlation with getting them the training that they need to get into the workforce."
HCC has also used a donation from the Houston Texans to give veterans scholarships for tuition, books and other fees. The college opened a veterans resource center last August where veterans can study, use computers and get tutoring.
Cox's classes took place in a large industrial room in the North Harris campus, where sparks and flashes of light periodically illuminated the space that includes rows of large, cubicle-like compartments with red walls. In this area, five veterans practiced their skills for five hours a day, five days a week for six weeks.
The program is short and fast, with an emphasis on building the base-level of practical skills necessary for a job, Cox's instructor Randy Wilkins said. There are two instructors for the group of five veterans, meaning students get significant attention, Cox said.
"I picked it up pretty quick," said Cox, who was stationed at Camp Pendleton, where he taught other Marines about different firearms, from pistols to M16 rifles to machine guns, stripping them down to their individual pieces and putting them back together again.
The welding machine he uses -- a big blue box, called a Mig -- and its components are not unlike what he worked with in the Marines, Cox said.
"It's similar in the way they explain it," Cox said. "There's not as many moving parts."
Veterans, in general, have qualities that are desirable to employers, Crawford said.
"They're used to being on time. They are disciplined. They understand structure. They follow rules. They're loyal," she said. "There's some qualities that a veteran has that employers value and they say, 'Well if we can get that type of person, and give them these types of skills, this is what's going to make our company great.'"
Chuck Bagnato, executive director of the Lone Star Veterans Association, a non-profit group that helps veterans transition back to the civilian world, said translating military skills into marketable job skills is one of the biggest challenges veterans face, often times because they're not trained to speak the same lingo as businesses and are conditioned to not brag about their strengths.
"It's twofold: one, employers really don't understand the veteran community," Bagnato said. "Two, veterans have a hard time translating their success and translating their abilites both on their resumes and verbally to the employers."
Cox's six-week training ended on a Friday after he passed a welding test. The Monday afterward, Cox went to collect his certificate and was told that a company called Empire Steel was already interested in hiring him, paying him between 22 to 30 dollars an hour to weld beams together on high-rise buildings,
He just has to pass a test on Monday.
"I'm pretty excited about it," he said. "If I can get in with these guys that would be pretty good."
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