Cottage Grove tower repair company becomes first to use GI Bill funds to train veterans | Economic news

The ability to remain calm during a laborious task is a skill that comes easily to Antonio Rivera.

Having learned from his military past, Rivera also quickly adapts to new circumstances and finds camaraderie among those he works with. It’s necessary, the veteran said, for the position he’s training for at Cottage Grove-based Tower MRL, which requires him to reach new heights – literally.

The tower site construction and maintenance company that became the first, approved by the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs, to use GI Bill funds to supplement apprenticeships for skilled workers like Rivera, the president said by Tower MRL, Chris Mallon. Founded in 2005, the company has about 80 employees – including three veterans – with 30 people climbing towers.

The GI Bill, the first version of which emerged in 1944 after World War II, is best known for helping those who served in the military with tuition and other education.

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The approval comes as Tower MRL has sought to attract more workers amid a talent shortage that has not spared any industry, Mallon said. It also comes as veterans, a minority group, have faced disparate unemployment rates amid the health crisis.

But those numbers seem to be improving. Last month, the national unemployment rate for veterans was 2.4%, down from 3.1% in February – and 4.8% in 2021, according to data from the US Department of Labor.

Rivera trains himself to be a tower worker – he travels across the United States for weeks climbing structures and making sure everything is working properly. But he soon plans to pursue an almost two-year apprenticeship program through Tower MRL which is partially covered by the funds – perhaps becoming a foreman or project manager to help the business grow.

Tower MRL has been a sponsoring employer (one of 67 nationally) for the telecommunications industry’s registered apprenticeship program for several years, Mallon explained, adding that the DOL-registered program supported by the Wireless Infrastructure Association enables its graduates to receive industry-specific training and credentials to find employment.

It was through TIRAP that Tower MRL recently discovered how the GI Bill could help the company find and retain talent, he said.

“What a lot of people might not know (about the bill) is that it can fund more four-year college programs,” said Brett Weil, vice president of development at the WIA workforce.

How it will work when it officially rolls out for veterans in training, Mallon explained, is that they will receive a set salary for the duration of their apprenticeship. While an intern would normally start at an hourly rate of $18, the bill allows that salary to increase to $25. This difference can cover various training-related costs, such as books and even housing.

Offer support

Saul Newton, founder of the Wisconsin Veterans Chamber of Commerce since 2015, said more companies like Tower MRL should embrace the skills that those who served in the military can bring to the workplace.

But the bigger issue for employers is how to translate the skills veterans bring, Newton said, which can lead to a “loss of economic stability” for the minority group.

“It’s really smart for employers who see the GI Bill as a way to soften that blow,” he said.

The House itself recently unveiled a program, called VetWorks Wisconsin, with the state Department of Veterans Affairs and the Wisconsin Veterans Network, a nonprofit organization, to help transition out active duty service members and to relocate to communities across the state.

The program provides assistance with employment, education, housing, legal services, medical care and more, Newton said.

“There’s no simple solution,” he said of addressing veterans’ employment issues globally.

For Rivera, who has children, the opportunity to advance her career at Tower MRL has been life changing.

After military deployments to various countries, including Iraq, in the early 2010s, spending some time in college with no return on investment and after “bouncing from job to job” – “From one somehow I got my spine back.”