After serving 17 years in the military, Matthew Paquette left his work as an electrician’s mate in the Navy, where he was assigned to the USS Shasta Battle Group Echo, stationed off the coast of Kuwait.
He returned to civilian life in 2005 and took advantage of a program called “Helmets to Hard Hats,” which helps veterans transition to construction careers. The East Providence resident spent four years completing his bricklayer’s apprenticeship with classes and on-the-job training.
“Now I’m a journeyman bricklayer, but unfortunately the economy tanked in Rhode Island. The work just dried up,” he said. “What’s my title? Unemployed bricklayer,” said the 44-year-old Paquette.
He’s among an army of former veterans in Rhode Island and across the nation trying to make due with temporary work – in Paquette’s case part of a federally funded beach-cleanup crew.
The plight of veterans who serve their country and return home to find themselves part of the legion of the unemployed is a national issue, said Erik Wallin, executive director of Operation Stand Down Rhode Island, a nonprofit that’s a resource for homeless and low-income veterans.
Of the 70,000 veterans in Rhode Island, more than 14 percent are unemployed, with that figure rising to nearly 17 percent unemployment for post-9/11 veterans, according to 2011 statistics, Wallin said.
The unemployment rate for veterans is about 6 to 7 percent higher than the rate for the general population, he said.
“It’s due to a number of factors. In Rhode Island, a good portion of the demand is on the National Guard,” Wallin said. “The Rhode Island National Guard is the second-most deployed National Guard unit, per capita, in the U.S.”
Extended deployments and scarce employment opportunities in the state add up to major challenges for veterans, Wallin said.
“Even though many employers would like to, they cannot hold open a position for a veteran. In a small business, when a key person left to go to Iraq or Afghanistan, he had to be replaced. And when he comes back, the job is gone,” Wallin said.
“And if a business does need to hire, it can often hire someone who already has the exact skills and doesn’t need to be retrained,” he said. “A lot of military members were security forces or in civil engineering and they do need to be retrained. They don’t have the exact, applicable skills to go back into the job market.”
Paquette is among 55 Rhode Islanders, about half of them veterans, in the workforce, at least temporarily, under the federal Hurricane Sandy recovery grant.