Nonprofit connects veterans to industry where 'jobs are plentiful'
Carol Multack of Naperville wasn't aiming to help veterans.
She was looking for young people to enroll in a technical training course developed by her company. But on her first day of market research, she discovered another problem -- and thought of a way to solve both issues at once.
Her industry, commercial food service equipment repair, needs younger technicians, Multack knew from her work at Rolling Meadows-based Ignitor Labs. And veterans, she found, need jobs.
In 2012, when Ignitor Labs began rolling out its basic technician training program for food service repair, veterans between the ages of 20 and 24 had roughly a 30 percent unemployment rate, Multack said.
"Compared with their nonveteran counterparts, that rate was triple," she said.
The statistic hit home with Multack, whose father and three brothers served in the military. And it hit home even more with her partner, George Nicholson, an Air Force veteran who runs Ignitor Labs with the help of his second-in-command, a Navy veteran.
Multack kept working to develop a student base for the online technician training program, partnering with 22 community colleges across the country, including Oakton and Waubonsee locally. But she also started her own venture, aiming to connect veterans with the estimated 15,000 jobs available nationwide as food service equipment technicians. Vet2Tech was born.
'Jobs are plentiful'
Vet2Tech exists as a nonprofit scholarship program providing veterans funding to enroll in the Ignitor Labs technician training program, waiving the usual $1,495 fee. The course, which often takes between 30 and 60 days to complete, is approved by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Vet2Tech guarantees a job interview for anyone who completes the class and passes a final exam with a score of 70 percent or higher, Multack said.
Passing that exam gives a veteran access to Vet2Tech's database of roughly 870 companies nationwide that are hiring technicians.
"These jobs are plentiful and always in high demand," Multack said. "It's a huge need. Easily, we could put 100 to 200 technicians in jobs in the Chicago area pretty quick."
Since accepting its first students in October, Vet2Tech has helped three of them land in technician jobs, including 28-year-old Chris Casebeer of Elgin, who now works in the parts department at Coker Service Inc. in Villa Park.
Casebeer, a Marine Corps veteran who remains active in the reserves, said he completed the program in about a month, and he appreciated its broad base of information.
"It gave me a good general idea of what I'd be working on and what I'd be doing," Casebeer said. "Eventually, I plan on going out with a senior technician to learn how they fix things and what they do so I can become one myself."
'Very visual learners'
Senior technicians in food service equipment repair can make between $80,000 and $100,000 a year. But Multack said those in the workforce are aging and not always able to perform the physical demands of the job -- a greasy gig that sometimes involves moving or squeezing behind heavy equipment.
Nicholson, president and CEO of Ignitor Labs, said his company began developing online training programs to help the industry attract younger technicians who are used to playing video games and learning on the Internet.
Fixing a fryer at a fast-food restaurant is a hands-on job, but Nicholson said students can learn how to read a schematic or calculate resistance in a circuit through the video game-like features of the online training course. Students can view 3-D images of the equipment, pick up tools from a toolbox and practice using them to test the functionality of gas, electric and steam cooking power. The computerized program even lets students see some things that wouldn't be visible in the field, Nicholson said.
"For technicians who are typically very visual learners, being able to show them something that's normally hard to see, electricity in a circuit, becomes very powerful," Nicholson said. "For some reason, that information just sticks."
Technicians who complete the Ignitor Labs program aren't done learning. Many will go through at least a year of paid on-the-job training, receiving wages that start about $15 to $17 an hour. But the online course gives students enough basic understanding to prepare for more hands-on steps in the process of becoming a technician, said TJ Coker, operations manager of Coker Service Inc., who hired one of the first Vet2Tech graduates in Casebeer.
"Learning on that platform is something that comes natural to the generation that's coming out of service," Coker said. "The program is a very basic introduction to our industry."
The ideal student is someone like Casebeer, who always has enjoyed fixing things. Or someone like current Vet2Tech enrollee Ivory Crawford of Lombard, a 21-year-old Army National Guard member who calls himself a "professional breaker and a professional fixer." Crawford said he sees potential for growth in the food service equipment repair industry and he wants to build the skills to become a leader.
"It seems like a career that's not really thought of. When equipment breaks down, who do they call? Nobody really knows," Crawford said. "I'd like to be that person and move on up to a management position."
Students with a background in heating, ventilation and air conditioning as well as mechanics and electricians have the chops to fly through the training program, ace the official final exam and waltz into an interview with one of Vet2Tech's listed companies, which have promised to hire veterans first.
"When I see those skills come out, I know they're going to get through this course because this stuff is going to be elementary to them," Multack said.
Connecting with vets
Reaching young veterans has been the biggest struggle for Multack since launching Vet2Tech. She's had 76 applicants so far and awarded 25 scholarships, but she wants to grow the program so hundreds of veterans are taking the course at a time.
Multack has networked with politically connected veterans like state Rep. David Harris of Arlington Heights and 8th Congressional District candidate Larry Kaifesh, and with organizations such as Illinois Joining Forces. But she might be running into the same problems the commercial food service industry is encountering when recruiting technicians.
"This is not necessarily for any veteran returning," Harris said. "You have to have somewhat of a skill set of mechanical training, mechanical interest."
Multack also tells applicants they must have proof of honorable discharge from the military, a relatively clean driving record, no felony convictions and the ability to pass a random drug test. With the unemployment rate for 20- to 24-year-old veterans at roughly 19 percent as of last August, she knows young veterans still are struggling to find jobs and she hopes some of them will see Vet2Tech as a good option.
"She has lined up the demand side of the equation. There are jobs waiting for these people and now she needs the supply side, the people who can be trained to fill the jobs," Harris said. "Anything that has a job waiting for a trained individual at the end of it, that's a great program, and that's what she's got."
Although new employees are not yet flocking to food service equipment repair companies in large numbers through Vet2Tech, Coker said he's willing to continue supporting the program.
"Anything that helps veterans get from the battlefield to the job site is a good thing," Coker said.
"We've always been supportive of that."