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Hire MI Heroes bill aims to get vets back into the workforce

1:52 AM, Nov. 14, 2011  |  
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Jeremy Briggs, 31, with his wife, Becky Briggs, 24, has been looking for work since August. Jeremy Briggs is an officer in the Army National Guard who served in Iraq. / JARRAD HENDERSON/Detroit Free Press

Jeremy Briggs, 31, is a college-educated pilot with experience in construction, graphic design and car mechanics. Yet, this Iraq war veteran, an officer in the Army National Guard, has been looking for a full-time job since August.

"We've had a rough economy for twice as long as most of the rest of the country," Briggs of Howell said about Michigan. "Everybody I came home with from flight school is looking."

Briggs is one of the nearly 30% of post-9/11 veterans in the state who are unemployed, according to a June congressional report. That is nearly three times the national average. Veterans' ranks will grow in a few weeks as the 40,000 troops remaining in Iraq start returning to the U.S. Michigan has the third highest number of veterans in the country, at about 725,000, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The number of veterans looking for work in Michigan is sure to grow, said state Sen. Vincent Gregory, D-Southfield, one of the sponsors of the Hire MI Heroes package introduced in the Legislature last week. It would credit small-business owners up to $4,000 per year per veteran hired. The state tax credit could complement a federal tax credit in the VOW to Hire Heroes Act, which the Senate passed Friday.

"We as a state need to do something to help these people," said Gregory, a Vietnam War Marine Corps veteran who said he came home after four years with multiple skills, but outdated experience in job hunting.

Briggs said he has been taking short jobs to keep the coffers from emptying completely.

Veterans returning to civilian life often struggle with the change from having constant, assigned work in the military to having to compete for jobs, said David Cohen, who runs job placement for homeless veterans at Southwest Solutions' Piquette Square. Cohen is working with 20 veterans with skill sets that range from nursing to construction. Couple the change in employment with the changes in culture between military and civilian life, and it's no wonder so many veterans struggle to find work when they reintegrate, he said.

"Veterans don't have luck on their own," said Cohen, who fought in Desert Storm.

Cohen said companies may be concerned about hiring veterans based on perceptions of post-traumatic stress disorder or problems reintegrating, but he said they shouldn't be. He hopes Gregory's bill will help.

"The more doors you open, the better for all," Cohen said.

Gregory said there might be concerns that businesses would lay off civilians to take advantage of the tax credit, but as the bill moves through the Legislature, provisions can be added to prevent that, as well as to put an expiration date on the credit after a few years. The Small Business Administration office in Detroit said the agency is improving programs nationwide to help veterans start businesses, in the hopes of creating jobs other veterans can fill.

The attention is welcome, but in the end, skills still have to match open jobs, said Thomas Studholme, 50, a 22-year Army veteran who served in Kuwait during the Iraq war.

"I thought it was going to be easy," he said of when he left the Army in 2004 and started looking for a job. "I had to find something. I took what I got."

Skilled in radio communications, with years of supervisory experience in the Army, he ended up working at a furniture rental store before deciding to go back to school in 2009. Soon, he'll be looking for jobs doing things like energy audits for residential and business clients. He says those fields are hiring, and he'll finally have the skills to match.

Contact Megha Satyanarayana: 586-826-7267 or megha@freepress.com

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