WASHINGTON — Erick Varela served his country as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division.
Later, he was homeless in Manteca.
Now, he is a budding lineman with PG&E and an example of how companies are trying to retrain veterans.
Varela and other vets went to Washington during the summer to meet with lawmakers and think tank staff to press the case for more vocational services.
"Oh, man, it's changed my life," Varela said of his vocational training. "You just have to look at where I was."
Varela praised the PG&E veterans training program that helped him get back on track, and he put a human face on a problem that defies easy solution, though it has been systematically diagnosed.
"I was a veterans' statistic," Varela said. "I hate to say it."
Veterans' unemployment rates exceed those of the U.S. population as a whole; in some cases by a remarkable margin. Twenty-nine percent of male veterans under the age of 24 were unemployed in March, compared to 17 percent of non-veterans, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
An estimated 107,000 veterans were homeless in 2010, according to the most recent survey by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"It's a huge problem," retired Marine Corps Gen. Jim Jones said at a Bipartisan Policy Center conference this summer. "For our country, it's a strategic problem that has to be solved."
In response, lawmakers and private industry leaders alike have tried different fixes with mixed results.
Lots of bills are getting introduced, with determined-sounding names -- the Wounded Warriors Employment Opportunity Act, the Heroes Hiring Heroes Act and the Tax Credit for Hiring Veterans Act.
Even without the latest new proposals, the federal government spent $126 billion on all veterans programs last year, twice the amount that was spent in 2004.
Outside of Washington, some companies have also taken up the reins, sometimes with government help.
In 2008, boosted by a $500,000 community college grant from the state of California, PG&E initiated new veterans training classes at Fresno City College and the City College of San Francisco. The utility company contributed its own resources as well to the program designed to train new utility line workers and mechanics.
PG&E has since added Sacramento's American River College to the mix and trained about 150 workers through the veterans program, and officials now talk of expanding it nationwide through the utility industry's Edison Electric Institute.
"Our industry is facing a real shortage of skilled workers," PG&E Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Tony Earley noted at the Bipartisan Policy Center conference.
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