Rosedale Technical College eases veterans’ shift from war to workforce |
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Veteran Chris Anderson, 26, of Gates, Fayette County, works on an Audi on Friday, Nov. 7, 2014, at Rosedale Technical College in Kennedy, where he takes automotive repair classes.

In Iraq, Luther Coe was an expert at fixing tanks.

Stateside, the only work he could find was mowing lawns.

“I wish I could have been fixing tanks still. I love fixing tanks,” said Coe, an Army veteran whose last overseas tour ended in 2009. Mowing lawns for a living “was work; it was money. I did it because I had to.”

Like many returning veterans, Coe picked up unique skills while serving in the military. Besides repairing tanks, he was part of a catastrophic recovery team, meaning he cleaned up when a military vehicle was destroyed by a roadside bomb.

Yet he struggled to find work when he got home, which complicated the difficult process of readjusting to civilian life.

Like so many returning veterans, Coe wandered, worked in unfulfilling jobs and struggled to adapt.

Then he heard about Rosedale Technical College in Kennedy, a nonprofit trade school that actively recruits veterans for its technology programs and helps ease the transition to post-military life.

“Many returning veterans have some transferable skills, but not necessarily exactly what local employers need,” said Dennis Wilke, Rosedale’s president and director. “If a vet can enhance their leadership and professionalism with some specific career training, they can be extremely valuable. … Since our programs are condensed and focused, there is little wasted time, and the vet can get out to the workforce quickly.”

Coe and other veterans are discovering this firsthand.

When Mike Basulto, a Department of Veterans Affairs-certified official, started working as a financial aid officer at Rosedale in 2011, there were 17 vets enrolled.

This year, there are 60.

“You want them to get out there and work, and they deserve everything we can do for them because of what they did for their country,” Basulto said. “That’s why we try to help them.”

The school day generally starts with 90 minutes of theory, taught in a classroom setting.

Students then spend several hours using what they’ve learned and working with their hands.

Automotive repair students Chris Anderson and Jeremy Schiff, for example, recently worked to figure out how to replace a temperature sensor housing and fix a coolant leak in a fellow student’s Audi.

Once he left the military, Anderson, who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, worked at a Dollar General for two months, quit, then worked as a coal miner in West Virginia before the mine shut down.

“I am not made for retail,” Anderson said. “You could say I don’t deal well with minuscule complaints. And I hate monotony with a passion.”

At Rosedale, he not only is learning a trade that will present challenges most days, but he rediscovered the sense of camaraderie he experienced in the military, Anderson said.

“It’s a family-style environment here,” he said. “There’s always someone you can talk to.”

“I never thought I’d be excited to go to school,” added Schiff, who worked at Giant Eagle before enrolling at Rosedale. “I wake up now and I’m like, ‘I get to go to school!’ ”

To cater to veterans, Rosedale holds regular informal breakfasts, often with guest speakers who provide information on financial aid and other developments. The school soon will start work on a veterans-only lounge, officials said.

Rosedale offers programs in automotive and diesel technology, electronics, HVAC and truck driving, among other courses. Most programs last 16 months and cost $26,000 to $30,000.

The school has a 92 percent job placement rate, officials said. Most of the jobs pay well; some have six-digit salaries.

Mark Simoneau, an Air Force veteran who teaches hydraulics at Rosedale, said many vets learn maintenance skills in the military that provide a base of knowledge but are not transferable in civilian life. At Rosedale, they refine their skills.

But the biggest draw, he said, is being around other veterans during a time of difficult adjustment.

“We support each other,” Simoneau said. “You know when someone’s having an off day, it’s, ‘Hey, how are you doing? Want to sit down? Talk?’

“We’ve seen a lot of the same things, and now we can support each other,” he said. “It may not be through an emotional conversation, but more of, ‘Hey, I know. I’ve been there. I’ve been there with you. I know what you’re going through.’ It really helps.”

Debbie Bier, Rosedale’s director of admissions, tries to promote the school’s family atmosphere before students take their first class. She asks every student to sign her wall and mark their expected graduation date.

“It’s a commitment,” Bier said. “Like signing a contract.”

The signatures and dates cover all four walls and are creeping up to the ceiling tiles. Many students bring their parents to watch them graduate.

“It shows that they care about you,” Schiff said.

“It feels good to be appreciated,” Coe added.

Chris Togneri is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5632 or [email protected].

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