Marine veteran Larry Kimble knows what it is like to adjust to civilian life, so when his boss at the Maryland Transit Administration asked for ways to get more former military personnel involved in the department, he came up with an idea that could soon be replicated across the nation.
The MTA holds numerous training classes for its employees, teaching them how to do everything from filling in a spreadsheet in Excel to repairing the brakes on a subway car. Slots in those classes often go empty, so, Kimble asked, why not offer them to veterans?
"When you come out of a combat environment, like most of these people are, you tend to be a little rough around the edges," said Kimble, the MTA's executive director of corporate services. "This can be a real confidence builder."
Kimble's idea got a quick go-ahead from the state, and with unemployment among young veterans as high as 25 percent - several times the national rate - it got the attention of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Federal officials say they hope the first-of-its-kind program could be a national model.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. officially launched the Maryland Veterans Workforce Training Program yesterday with the aid of U.S. Veterans Secretary Jim Nicholson.
The veterans who participate will not be guaranteed government jobs, but they will have the chance to acquire new skills to bridge what they learned in the armed forces with the demands of civilian life, officials said.
The classes, which take place at MTA offices around the state, teach computer use, math, business writing, communication, anger management, financial planning, customer service and other office skills. Other courses provide technical skills, such as bus and rail maintenance.
Nicholson said he has grown increasingly concerned about the prospects of veterans coming home from Iraq, Afghanistan and other postings, and he said he was delighted to hear about Kimble's idea. He said he hopes to take it to the National Governors Association and encourage other states to follow Maryland's lead.
"We need to do something," Nicholson said. "All of us benefit from the selfless service of veterans in uniform, and all should take responsibility for ensuring their well-being when they return home."
MTA Administrator Lisa L. Dickerson said she had been looking for a way to get veterans more involved in the agency. She had already done the same thing with disabled people, and she figured that since veterans have shown a high degree of commitment and responsibility - and in many cases, have skills that are similar to those they would need at the agency - they could be a good pool of potential employees.
Although the veterans who participate will not necessarily come out of the training with a job, Dickerson said she expects it might often work out that way.
"We are always looking to recruit people in areas like mechanics," she said.
Kimble, who served six years in the Marines and has subsequently worked for the federal Defense and Veterans Affairs departments as well as the state Department of Veterans Affairs before moving to the MTA, said there is no way to know how many of Maryland's 470,000 military veterans could benefit from the program, because it has never been tried before.
At present, classes are scheduled on an ad-hoc basis whenever the department needs them, but Kimble said there are routinely empty slots.
Kimble's plan - which, from the state's perspective, has the virtue of being essentially cost-free - calls for MTA employees to talk to veterans about their interests and attempt to match them with classes. Any veteran with an honorable discharge who lives in Maryland is eligible, he said.
MTA employees will have first priority to fill the classes, and after them, disabled veterans will get preference. Technical classes range from half-day to five-day courses. Other classes are spread out over several weeks.
Kimble said the low time commitment is ideal for veterans who are trying to readjust to civilian life. This way, they can get some ideas about careers that might interest them and learn how to relate to others in the work force without using federal education benefits that could go instead to more specialized education or training.
"A lot of them go in single and come out married with a child, and they need to work," Kimble said. "We think that this kind of job skill training will put them at more of a competitive advantage when they apply for jobs."
Nicholson said the idea could not have come at a better time. He said he has been appealing to all the major veterans organizations, trade groups and corporations for help in combating the unemployment problem, and he said this idea is a welcome boost to his efforts.
"You have become a first-responder to an emergent issue that I think commands the attention of all Americans," Nicholson told Ehrlich yesterday. "We need a program like this we can replicate throughout the country."