January 01, 2013 11:45 pm • By ART HOVEY / Lincoln Journal Star
When Marine veteran Rowdy Bolinger returned to civilian life, he had trouble finding a good job fit.
That’s when he reached out to the Greek god Proteus. Well, not exactly.
Rather than relying on a mythical being known for his ability to change his form, Bolinger turned to a Lincoln job training company that bears the Proteus name.
Together, Proteus Inc. and a man who served two tours in Iraq worked to get him through four weeks of instruction at JTL Truck Driver Training on Omaha’s western outskirts and earn him a commercial driver’s license.
Now he’s making daily trips back and forth between Iowa City, 270 miles away, and Werner Enterprises across Interstate 80 from the trucking school.
“You live a life and you feel like it has meaning and purpose,” the 36-year-old Bolinger said of his time in the military. “And then you come back home and everything is different.”
Proteus is a long-term, private sector presence in Iowa, but a much more recent addition in Nebraska and in Lincoln. Its federal origins go all the way back to the presidency of Lyndon Johnson and his War on Poverty in the 1960s.
Working with federal grant money offered through the Department of Labor and under the National Farm Workers Jobs Program, Proteus' Lincoln staff covered the $4,000 cost of Bolinger’s education as a trucker.
Susan Billups has been a regional director for Proteus at the Lincoln office at Ninth Street and Pioneers Boulevard since September 2011.
“You have to have worked an agricultural job for the majority of your money for a 12-month period sometime in the last two years,” Billups said in explaining how the farm connection works.
Income guidelines also apply -- less than $11,170 for a single person and $24,240 for a family of four.
“These folks can go from minimum wage jobs to making $35,000, $45,000, $50,000, depending on who they get on with and what they can negotiate for themselves,” she said.
At this point in his life, Bolinger wants to combine trucking with longer-term work toward a business administration degree.
“I was looking for a job that wasn’t so physically demanding that I couldn’t go to school at the same time,” he said.
Ultimately, he would like to get back to what he was doing between two stints in the Marines. That means defense contracting and “moving men, equipment and weapons to and from the Middle East,” he said.
There are about as many possibilities for switching job descriptions as there are jobs, Billups said.
“If someone wants to be an LPN and they work in hog confinement, we will help them do that,” she added.
Migrant farm workers constitute “a second tier” of potential Proteus clients.
“One of the tripping points is that you have to be the head of your own household. So we can’t take an 18-year-old whose mom and dad still claim him on their taxes and enroll him in this program.”
As Bolinger’s situation demonstrates, part of the service Proteus provides is to a population of veterans who may be having trouble with the conversion from military to civilian employment.
For much of the past decade, unemployment rates have trended higher among those coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan.
David Cook, an instructor at JTL, said many of the 150 to 175 students enrolled there each year have military backgrounds.
“We get a lot of veterans,” he said.
JTL and Proteus have worked together before, he added.
At the same time, he said, the trend in the trucking industry is toward Werner and other major truck carriers hiring new drivers who have had some kind of formal training.
“They don’t want to hire new drivers off the street,” he said.
Long-haul truckers in eastern Nebraska typically start at $38,000 to $42,000 a year, Cook said.
In Nebraska, Proteus is reaching out to veterans and nonveterans alike from Lincoln, as well as from Columbus, Grand Island, North Platte and Scottsbluff.
Part of Bolinger’s frustration in trying to navigate his own way to better employment was in using his G.I. Bill eligibility to pay for the cost of his trucker training.
“I was just having a hard time,” he said. “The G.I. Bill (representatives) didn’t want to pay for school.”
When he turned to Proteus, “it took about a one-half-hour meeting and Kim (of Proteus) was able to get everything she needed to make it happen.”
Bolinger’s experience in returning to civilian employment was that jobs that pay subsistence wages aren’t difficult to find.
“In order to find something satisfying,” he said, “it’s really hard.”