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Trade School Scams, Trucking, and the Uncertain Future of Veteran Work
Is the government pushing veterans into bad jobs?
Since its inception in 1944, the G.I. Bill has not only supported students at post-secondary colleges and universities, but also those studying at trade schools. Some trade schools have helped countless veterans learn valuable skills in economically promising vocations. Yet many programs provide a dubious return on investment. Some are run by sly hucksters or greedy frauds.
This was evident in one of the earliest and most brazen G.I. Bill scams, which happened not in a place of higher learning, but at a TV repair school.
Here’s how the scam worked: World War II veterans would enroll in trade courses to fix televisions. They were promised a free tube out of the deal. After they signed up and their television was secured, many were told they could ditch the classes, go home, and turn on “I Love Lucy.” The TV trade school subsequently reported false student information to the government and took in a sizable chunk of taxpayer change.
These types of rip-offs continue to this day. A similar scam recently emerged inside the Alliance School of Trucking (AST). In 2011, Emmit Marshall, the owner and president of AST, secured permission from the California State Approving Agency for Veterans Education (CSAAVE) to instruct two courses: a 60-hour tractor trailer & safety class as well as a 600-hour select driver development program.
According to court records, AST staff went on an aggressive recruitment spree, luring in scores of veterans with the promise of a free housing stipend and other G.I. Bill benefits without ever having to actually go to school. Marshall and two co-conspirators later forged VA documents as well as grade transcripts, attendance records, and certificates of completion.
G.I. Bill oversight and accreditation practices have long been flawed and are today split between the VA and state approving agencies like CSAAVE. The lines between the VA and its state counterparts have long been ambiguous and even contradictory, with both bodies mostly relying on self-reporting by schools rather than independent investigation.
These flawed systems allowed AST to slide under the radar for years. Between 2011 and 2015, this sham trucking school took in a whopping $2.3 million from the VA. Veterans complicit in the scheme raked in an additional $1.9 million. After the government wised up, Marshal and key employees removed and destroyed fraudulent documents from student files. And yet banking information and other compelling evidence forced Marshall to plead guilty to the scheme in 2019.
Similar stories have recently popped up at a barber college, a welding school, and two air conditionerrepair programs.Perhaps the wildest recent trade school scam involves Blue Star Learning which, according to the Department of Justice, undertook “extraordinary efforts” to deceive the VA for more than three years. According toStars & Stripes, the school’s owner, Nimesh Shah, “provided false documents to the agency, invented fake students, created fake student files, and fabricated graduate employment data.” Shah also hired people overseas to answer emails from the VA. They pretended to be satisfied graduates working in the technology field.
“These G.I. Bill scams go on in the periphery and, unfortunately, in some cases, veterans are complicit,” John Kamin, the American Legion’s Assistant Director of Veteran Employment and Education, told me.
In just the five cases I’ve mentioned, more than $110 million was stolen from the government. And yet trade schools are rarely discussed in G.I. Bill policy spaces, even as they face less federal oversight and growing popularity.
According to the VA’s most recent statistics, a total of 24,169 veterans began a vocational program through the G.I. Bill in 2019, a nearly five-fold jump over the last five years. This now means that roughly fourteen percent of all vets using their G.I. Bill are today learning a vocation, from trucking to hair care.
One of the few available analyses into G.I. Bill-eligible trade schools comes from the policy non-profit Veterans Education Success (VES). In a 2019 report, they found that ten years after their trade schooling, less than half of graduates earned more than those with a high school education. VES’ analysis was hampered by the fact that the VA collects incomplete and often inaccurate data on trade schools. Even so, the report offered warning signs that few took notice of.
While AST is now shuttered, some veterans are still enrolled in a number of sketchy trucking schools. That said, the lion’s share of G.I. Bill-eligible trucking programs are legitimate and are attracting large swaths of veteran students. According to VA data, trucking is the most common trade veterans enter into, with U.S. census numbers pegging 1 in 10 truck drivers as folks who’ve served.
There’s good reasons for this. Many veterans became experts in logistics or heavy machinery in the service and can therefore transition relatively easily into a job driving across America’s many highways and byways. Trucking is open to veterans of all stripes, including those with physical handicaps, and can pay pretty well, especially in a Teamsters shop that guarantees high wages and fair treatment.
The VA has regularly partnered with private companies and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to boost trucking as an ideal career path for veterans. This was evident during a 2017 White House ceremony, when a veteran driver was gifted the keys to a navy blue Kenworth T680 truck. Veterans groups, including the American Legion, are similarly bullish on the service-to-truck-driving pipeline, and government regulators have eased the path to commercial licensure for those exiting the military.
“I call my truck the war rig because it’s a constant reminder of the sacrifices I’ve made and the hope that I carry,” he said. “Truck driving isn’t just a job. It’s a way to serve your country, a way to connect with others, and for me, it’s a way to heal.”
I don’t doubt that Rogers and many other veterans find purpose in this work, which became all the more important during this pandemic.
Nonetheless, the work is undeniably stressful and can be deeply isolating. That’s partly why the industry turnover rate hovers around 85 percent. Survey data shows that veterans are some of the safest and most reliable of all commercial drivers, in large part because they’re trained to handle these terrible conditions. “Veterans and their families are accustomed to long stints away from home and have experience working in stressful environments,” an article analyzing this data explained.
While there’s a slew of online materials promoting trucking for veterans, there are far bleaker assessments tucked away in certain corners of the internet. In one thread from TruckingTruth.com, for instance, an Army combat infantry veteran wrote that the work “was much rougher than I thought,” in part because it exacerbated his PTSD and sleep apnea.
A second veteran chimed in with his own experience of “extremely bad days” and “daily struggles.”
“I just think that if I stick it out and get better I should be fine, and the potential to make plenty of money in trucking to correct past financial mistakes and have a comfortable life and future is extremely attractive,” he added.
A third said that while trucking “may not be as stressful as the sandbox, patrols, or whatever else you may have experienced in the service,” it’s nonetheless miserable work. “[You’re] highly focused for 11-14 hours a day, you sleep in tight confines, solitude, tight timelines, and other factors that can greatly wear down even hardened individuals.”
While Uber Freight projects a love of veterans, it’s a non-union shop eager to fully automate trucking. There are good union driving jobs veterans can find, either through long-haul work at UPS Freight, YRC Freight, ABF, as well as local delivery work through grocery chains, drink distributors, cement mixture companies, etc.
Yet it seems that veterans are often being funneled into the worst trucking companies around. According to a 2016 VA economic analysis, the last year such a report was created, the second most popular job G.I. Bill job trainer is Schneider National, a non-union company that may have the worst reputation of all the major trucking companies.
All of this throws into question the VA’s approach to this line of work. And yet, for many years, the VA, veterans’ groups, and corporate America have worked together to funnel veterans into a slew of subpar non-unionized jobs, including those at Wal-Mart and Amazon.
The underlying push to employ veterans is, of course, good. Jobs can create much-needed mental stability in a person’s life. And yet these benefits will be fleeting so long as veterans are being underpaid and overworked.
This is perfectly exemplified in the story of Navy veteran Seth King, who struggled with burnout, stress, and suicidal ideation in his time working at an Amazon fulfillment center. “Towards the end of the time I was there, I was so depressed,” he said in a town hall hosted by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. “And I kept telling myself, ‘If this is the best my life is going to get, why am I even still here?’”
Are you a veteran working in an exploitative job? Get in touch: email@example.com or 802-274-0365