CEDAR RAPIDS — When Don Thompson was trying to find a job, he ran into a barrier — his age.
Thompson, 81, as with many others who have discovered barriers to employment, has found work in the contract manufacturing division of Goodwill of the Heartland.
The Marion native works six hours a day, three days a week alongside 80-year-old Merle Holub, a friend. When Thompson is not working at Goodwill, he volunteers at his church’s food pantry.
“Don is usually the first car in the parking lot each morning,” said Dawn Turano, business development specialist at Goodwill of the Heartland, 1441 Blairs Ferry Rd. NE in Cedar Rapids. “He and Merle talk on the phone just about every evening. They really support each other.”
Thompson, who served in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War, has held a variety of occupations since his discharge in 1955.
“Square D had just come to town and I worked on the spray-painting line,” Thompson said, referring to what now is Schneider SA, in southwest Cedar Rapids. “After about a year, I took some training through the G.I. Bill and became a cabinet maker at American Cabinets on Center Point Road. We put in the cabinets in all the shops at Town & Country Shopping Center.”
Thompson moved from making wood cabinets to machining metal parts for printing presses at Rockwell Goss on Bowling Street SW. But he needed a hip replacement after seven years, and Department of Veterans Affairs doctors would not clear him to return to work, believing it was physically too strenuous.
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At 57 years of age, Thompson enrolled at Kirkwood Community College, where he completed his required subjects in two years, He transferred to Mount Mercy University, where he earned a bachelor of arts degree in criminal justice administration in 1987,
“I became a supervisor in a halfway house for about two years before I left and went down to the Department of Veterans Affairs Hospital in Iowa City, where I worked as a pharmacy tech,” Thompson said.
After he retired from the VA, Thompson tried a series of temporary jobs before he was hired by a Cedar Rapids law firm. He worked there for 13 years in a clerical position. When the law firm had to reduce expenses, Thompson’s job was eliminated.
“That’s when I started looking for work, but I was 80 and no one would hire me because of my age,” he said. “I wasn’t ready to sit idle. I’ve always worked and I enjoy working.”
Thompson learned about Goodwill Contract Services through the AARP Senior Community Service Employment Program. Tom Cavanagh, Goodwill production manager, said Thompson is a great mentor and role model for younger veterans in training through the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program.
“Don demonstrates a top-notch work ethic and positive work habits for the vets and his other co-workers,” Cavanagh said. “He has such a super attitude about work. People look up to him and enjoy having him around.”
Unemployment among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans remains consistently and substantially above the jobless rate of the civilian sector, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Prudential Financial’s Veterans Employment Challenges 2012 survey measured the experiences of some 1,845 post-9/11 veterans from all services to gauge their challenges to returning to civilian life.
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Almost all of them, 98 percent, reported at least one service-related challenge to entering or re-entering the civilian workforce. Two thirds of veterans reported struggling with three or more obstacles to employment.
The veterans reported they needed the most help with networking skills.
Turano said Goodwill Contract Services helps returning veterans and others with barriers to employment to make the transition into the regular workforce.
“Last year, we placed 665 individuals in community employment,” she said. “We are ISO 9001-2008 (quality management) certified. Our core competencies are packaging, assembly, inspection and kitting. We also do customized work.
“We did 4,620 shipments last year, 10.7 million finished products left our doors, and we had 100 percent on-time delivery.”
Goodwill Contract Services performs work for Rockwell Collins, Nordstrom Direct, Riverbend Industries, Whirlpool’s Amana division and other businesses in the region.
Scott Pope, plant manager at Riverbend Industries in Victor, said Goodwill is a strong manufacturing partner.
“Goodwill does subassemblies for us as well as inspections. They are very meticulous, good workers,” Pope said.
Goodwill’s partnership with Whirlpool-Amana provides a path for veterans to receive skills training, re-enter the workforce and access resources that combat homelessness. More than 4 million parts were shipped to Whirlpool Corp. over the last year, for example, creating paid training opportunities for 67 veterans who worked more than 12,000 hours.