GLEN ELLYN – Veteran Paul Gawley of Downers Grove worked for years in construction management after serving with the Naval Construction Battalion at the end of the Vietnam War.
But that changed around 2008, after the housing market collapsed and the real estate projects he was managing shut down.
He spent much of 2008 through 2010 with little – sometimes no – work. Although things have picked up within the last few years, the housing market still isn't what it once was.
Gawley's story is similar to those of many during the recent economic downturn. But these setbacks are particularly devastating to veterans, who sometimes experience difficulty transitioning to the private sector and finding work.
Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance (MEEA) runs the country's first ever Building Operator Certification (BOC) program for unemployed and underemployed veterans, program manager Aimee Skrzekut said. The program is housed at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn and provides veterans with the skills they need to work in facility management, with a special focus on energy efficiency.
Gawley, along with other veterans, participated in the program from February through May. It was previously held in Springfield last August.
As part of the program, veterans attended a full day of class at COD every other Wednesday. Classes covered a variety of topics related to facility management and were taught by professionals in each respective area, Skrzekut said.
To supplement classroom learing, veterans completed hands-on projects with assigned mentors, who work in building operations locally.
One professional who served as a mentor was Ed Kelly, who is the HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) foreman at Wheaton College.
Kelly had previously completed MEEA's BOC program for those already in the field before becoming a mentor. After learning the veterans program would be housed at COD, he agreed to be a mentor when approached by MEEA officials.
"These people have given years of their life, so it makes me feel good to be able to do something when they come home," Kelly said.
COD is always looking for ways to help people enter the workforce, and hosting the program at the college's facilities was an opportunity for COD to partner with the local workforce board and county offices to do that, said Debbie Hasse, program manager for business solutions.
Skrzekut said MEEA was looking to offer the program in the northern part of the state, and COD made sense as a location. However, the goal is to reach as many veterans as possible, so the program is expected to relocate to various locations across Illinois, she said.
Those interested should visit www.boccentral.org. Although the exact dates and locations haven't been announced for the next veteran program, Skrzekut said veterans could add themselves to a waiting list to be notified about program information when it becomes available.
Veteran Hector Ayala of Aurora, who also graduated from the BOC program, said he'd recommend other veterans to participate.
A recent retiree of the military, Ayala ended his service with the Marine Corps last November and spent about two months looking for work before learning about the BOC program at a job fair.
Now that he has completed the program, he will begin work as a first line supervisor with ComEd this summer.
He said other veterans should take advantage of the resources that are available to them because skills learned in the military can be transferred to jobs in the private sector; it's just a matter of finding where those jobs are.
"Most of all, just try to remain positive," Ayala said.