With persistently high unemployment rates, more N.H. veterans are starting their own businesses
When Matthew Bernard left the military for the second time, he decided the best way to deal with the challenge of being a veteran in a tough job market was to take the entrepreneur’s route.”I decided to start a computer company out of necessity,” said Bernard, who founded Brinestone LCC in Amherst in 2008 after a total of 13 years of service. Bernard had first served as an infantryman during his first stint in the Army. Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he joined the National Guard, and his unit was deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, and even to New Orleans in 2005 following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.Bernard had previous training and experiences as a networking specialist, which was one advantage that many veterans struggling to find a suitable job don’t have. But he is concerned that despite a number of state and federal government programs that target returning veterans, too many will find it a difficult transition into a slowly recovering economy that has yet to return to pre-recession employment levels.”The war in Afghanistan will come to an end and many thousands of soldiers, National Guardsmen and reservists will be coming home,” he said. “What is the country doing to prepare for the rush of fresh blood and talent? It’s important for the country and veterans to embrace this opportunity.”According to various state and federal surveys, the national unemployment rate for veterans is over 11 percent, but in New Hampshire it could be as high as 16 percent. Nationally, unemployment numbers for veterans up to the age of 24 could reach as high as 30 percent.The issue has not gone unnoticed. In New Hampshire, state and federal agencies meet regularly to discuss strategies and focus on promoting programs already in place.”Because of the economic downturn, we have seen a higher percentage of unemployed veterans,” said Greta Johansson, state director of the Small Business Administration. “We’re not sure we’ve found the right answers or the root causes why.”SBA initiativeLast year, Congress passed the VOW to Hire Heroes Act, which expands a work opportunity tax credit to businesses and certain tax-exempt organizations that hire unemployed veterans.The tax credit — which runs as high as $9,600 per veteran for businesses and $6,240 for tax-exempt organizations — is designed as an additional incentive to provide returning veterans with a greater range of employment opportunities. Earlier this year, the Obama administration launched a Veterans Job Corps to help veterans find work as first responders and law enforcement officers. In a nod to New Deal legislation of the 1930s, the program also proposes a conservation program that could put up to 20,000 veterans back to work restoring the nation’s public lands.Johansson believes that more veterans have taken the entrepreneurial option and started their own businesses. The SBA has increased its efforts to provide counseling, training and loans to them.Since it was launched in 2007, more than 570 veterans and their family members in the greater Boston region have taken advantage of the SBA Patriot Express Pilot Loan Initiative. Those eligible for consideration include veterans and service-disabled veterans, active-duty service members eligible for the military’s Transition Assistance Program, reservists and National Guard members, and current spouses or widowed spouses of service members or veterans who died during service or of a service-connected disability.According to Johansson, the initiative’s loans can be used for existing or new businesses and can cover startup costs, equipment purchases, real estate purchases for the business, working capital, training, expansion, setting up to sell goods and services to the government and preparing a business for the possibility of a service member’s deployment.For his part, Bernard developed his business organically after returning from his final tour in Afghanistan.He first worked training vets in Nashua on networking and computer skills while developing a small-business client base for outsourced IT services. His first hire was a veteran, and he’s hiring another soldier from Maine with whom he served. In a sign of the times, that soldier left the Army four years ago, couldn’t find a job and re-enlisted for another four-year stint.Bernard said he would like to hire more veterans, and he encouraged other business owners to give them more consideration. But he admitted it isn’t easy for a couple of reasons.One is cultural. Too often to his liking, Bernard has heard concerns about combat veterans being inflicted en masse with post-traumatic stress disorder — a misconception he said he works hard to rebuff.”I tell them frankly, ‘Are you kidding me?'” “he said.Second, he said, veterans need to step up and take personal responsibility for their own opportunities.According to Bernard, since most civilians haven’t served in the military, they don’t understand either the jargon or work that goes into being a soldier. He said it does no good for vets to say they know how to use particular weapons systems, special training they have taken or what vehicles they drove.Veterans must “re-educate themselves” for the civilian work world and be able to highlight their transferable skills such as problem-solving under pressure, discipline, ability to adapt, and their leadership experiences, said Bernard.”It does come down to the vet to be responsible for their resume and to prepare for an interview. They can’t use the moniker of being a combat veteran to think they are entitled,” he said. “But there are unique experiences of being a professional soldier that are important.”‘Very proactive’Gilbert Colon and Ralph Huber, both retired members of the New Hampshire Army National Guard, own PHI eManagment Solutions in Newmarket. The company’s business plan derives from their preparedness and disaster relief experiences while serving.The consulting company is still in the startup phase and working to get its name known in the region, but Colon said “the faster we can grow, the more veterans we will hire.” For Colon, common sense is why employers should give careful consideration to veterans.”The discipline they bring, working in a drug-free environment, getting up early in the morning every morning to do their job,” he said. “It’s hard to overestimate the dedication it takes to deal with all kinds of changing environments.”For his part, Bernard was recognized in 2010 by the Souhegan Valley Chamber of Commerce as Business Leader of The Year, and he was named to the New Hampshire Union Leader’s 40 under 40 list in 2011.Bernard says one of the least-understood attributes that veterans have is that they are constantly training and preparing.”Being the motivated Army staff sergeant that I am, I was very proactive and didn’t just rely on referrals and word of mouth,” he said. Bernard was trained enough to sense a changing environment and expanded his company to include business services and an Apple reseller.By good timing, he became the 160th and one of the last certified Apple specialists and resellers before the company closed down the program. He has been able to hire as needed more than a dozen veteran contract employees, many of whom he trained himself.”Part of the motivation for growing this business is that I want to hire more and more vets,” he said.