Editor’s Note: This marks the fourth year that Twin Cities Business has taken an in-depth look at the state of veterans’ employment in Minnesota. In military parlance, you could call it a “situation report.”

Since TCB first began examining this issue, job prospects for veterans in Minnesota have improved. Many companies now have extensive programs to recruit, hire and retain veterans. But challenges remain.

Many veterans find themselves with jobs that don’t take full advantage of their expertise; for some other veterans, the battle to find work—or in some cases, a better job—continues. Still other veterans aren’t looking to corporate America: They’re rolling up their sleeves to start their own businesses.

“The problem in Minnesota is not unemployment, it’s underemployment. It’s the people who are working two jobs part-time with no benefits,” says Jim Finley, who leads veteran employment programs at the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). Finley, an Army veteran himself, has spent the bulk of his career with the state of Minnesota since 1977 working on veterans’ employment issues.

A Range Of Resources For Entrepreneurial Vets

After getting out of the Marine Corps in fall 2013, Tim O’Neil headed to the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota with the idea of starting a company. Today he leads Minneapolis-based Fidelis Co., which makes backpacks, duffel bags and other gear. He got the business off the ground in 2015 with approximately $40,000 raised through the Kickstarter crowdfunding platform and a $20,000 loan from a Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development program to help veteran-owned businesses.

The business is still in its early stages, but O’Neil is encouraged by sales so far. He says revenue is in the “low six figures.”

”We’ve been able to experience some steady growth,” says O’Neil.

O’Neil wants to help build a network of local veterans who are working to launch business ventures. He’s serving as executive director of the newly launched nonprofit Bunker Labs Minneapolis (BLM), which will offer networking, mentorship and other support for veterans trying to start a company. BLM is one of a dozen local chapters that have sprung up after the original Bunker Labs in Chicago.

BLM held a kickoff event in mid-September whose attendees included Michael Langley, a Navy vet and CEO of the Greater MSP economic development group. It is also partnering locally with Minneapolis-based COCO co-working space.

O’Neil believes that the military mindset is an asset for would-be “vetrepreneurs” looking to build their own businesses. “I do think for folks that have been in the service there’s kind of an attitude of ‘I can make this happen,’ ” says O’Neil of the determination, confidence and problem-solving aptitude of veterans.

Statistics from the Minnesota District Office of the U.S. Small Business Administration show that veterans are currently tapping about 5 percent of the SBA loan volume in Minnesota. Statistics show that for the first 10 months of its fiscal 2016 (through July 31), there was $32.3 million loaned to 82 veteran business owners out of a total loan volume of $602.3 million. Loan volume to veterans was already $10 million more than the total for the entire fiscal 2015.

Minnesota SBA deputy district director Andy Amoroso says that his office is continuing to see strong demand for veteran-focused programs. Boots to Business Reboot, a national program, could be considered “basic training” for veterans with entrepreneurial ideas.

“There is a pretty strong demand for this service,” says Amoroso, noting that the program starts with a two-day class offering a “very intense, very thorough overview” of what it takes to start or expand a business. After that there are eight weeks of online classes.

DEED’s Minnesota Reservist and Veteran Business Loan Program can loan up to $20,000 at zero interest for a post-9/11 veteran. So far the revolving loan program has made 40 loans totaling nearly $800,000. There’s currently a waiting list for new loans, because new loans can’t be made until outstanding loans are repaid.

Bob Isaacson, DEED’s director of business finance, notes that veterans are also one of the groups that will be eligible to apply for loans from DEED’s new Emerging Entrepreneur Fund, which will begin late this year or early in 2017. That program will be able to make loans up to $300,000.

New data from the U.S. Census Bureau outlines a clear trend of improvement for veterans in Minnesota. Data from its American Community Survey released in mid-September estimated a total of 3,940 unemployed veterans in Minnesota for 2015. That’s significantly lower than in 2010, when the same survey found 15,285. In that regard it has mirrored the improvement of the overall economy. (See Veteran Jobs Data Confusing, Contradictory.)

Underemployment remains an issue. The term can refer to workers with part-time work instead of a full-time job or workers whose expertise and qualifications exceed the full-time job they have.

Tim O'Neil

Luis Nebel started testing the civilian job market about six to eight months before retiring from the Navy in 2015 after 26 years. Nebel holds a master’s degree in sports management and has extensive experience in operations management. But he says he was only being offered entry-level positions.

Employers “were intimidated by my resume,” says Nebel.

Nebel says that he would have been effectively underemployed in any civilian job that he could have landed. Instead, he and two partners launched Chicago-based Permanent Solutions Training, a business consulting firm. The company is opening a Minneapolis office. “Building my own company,” says Nebel, “was my only real viable option.”

Looking to help other veterans, Nebel is involved in the newly launched Bunker Labs Minneapolis, a nonprofit that offers mentorship, education and networking for entrepreneurial vets (see “A Range of Resources,”).

Mike Wolbrink knows all about the challenges adjusting to life and employment in the civilian world. An Army veteran, Wolbrink got out of the Reserves in 1998. His first job out of the service was selling satellite television dishes. But he also sold cars, did database development and taught computer classes. Nothing lasted for more than 18 months.

“I had a lot of trouble finding something that I wanted to do,” he recalls.

Then Wolbrink hit on an idea: to work with veterans like himself who might be struggling with the transition back into civilian life and employment. He started Eagan-based Azule Staffing in 2012. The business has steadily grown; Azule was named the 2016 Veteran-Owned Small Business of the Year for Minnesota by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

But Wolbrink agrees that many veterans are in positions where they can’t use all of their skills. He sees cases where a veteran, for example, might be working at an IT help desk, but could find a better-paying job by getting some additional training or certificates. Based on his read of the current climate, Wolbrink launched the nonprofit Azule Foundation in 2015; it complements its staffing sibling with education, advocacy and resources for veterans seeking jobs.

“What we’re finding is that people are getting jobs,” says Wolbrink. “But that there’s underemployment.”

A road map that works

By one yardstick there are clearly more companies chasing fewer potential veteran employees today. DEED’s 10th annual veterans’ job fair, held last summer, drew 242 companies and about 700 veterans. In 2015, there were 186 companies and more than 850 veterans at the event.

Companies that successfully hire and retain veterans have learned some key lessons. They say you need to be tactical to improve veteran hiring. Rhetoric and press releases about a company’s good works are not necessarily synonymous with an effective strategy. Local companies have taken a variety of approaches, but a common denominator is finding a strategy that works and sticking with the plan. Here are some best practices suggested by those who have found success with vets.

1. Make a real commitment
Do your company’s practices match its rhetoric when it comes to veteran hiring?

“We hire 200 veterans a year,” says Les Larson, director of corporate recruiting for the New Brighton-based APi Group Inc. “The most important step is you have to make a commitment.”

The privately held concern is the parent company to more than 40 companies with 12,000 employees. Today Larson estimates that approximately 8 or 9 percent of the company’s employees are veterans.

2. Get the word out
Compared to Fortune 500 companies, Fridley-based E.J. Ajax Metalforming Solutions is a small business. But the third-generation family-owned concern has built a reputation in recent years for hiring veterans.

“All the staffing agencies already know that we’re veteran-friendly,” says operations and HR manager Curt Jasper. He acknowledges that the company can’t hire every single veteran candidate, but, he says, “I will give every veteran an interview.”

3. Build a support network for veterans on staff
For Eagan-based Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, reaching out to veterans doesn’t stop once they’re hired. The company has an internal, employee-led veterans employee resource group, which includes veterans and their spouses. It currently has about 140 members and pairs veteran employees with a Blue Cross employee who is also a veteran. The program can also help the family of a deployed veteran with tasks such as yard work or home repairs. Stacia Cohen, a Blue Cross vice president, says that it’s important for managers to stay attuned to family issues that may be affecting a returning veteran. “I think our corporate awareness of that is pretty important,” says Cohen, an Army veteran.

4. Connect with the veteran community outside the company
San Francisco-based Wells Fargo & Co. has a large Minnesota presence and a strong commitment to veteran hiring. But the bank goes beyond just recruiting and hiring. In Minnesota, Wells Fargo has donated homes to wounded veterans, provided grants to veteran-related organizations and supported a range of military-related events, creating a real presence in the veteran community.

5. Deploy more than one strategy to reach veterans
Minnetonka-based UnitedHealth Group Inc. is one of America’s largest companies, and it has developed a philosophy of trying to reach veterans through as many different channels as possible.

Ouraphone Willis, UHG’s director of diversity recruiting, says the company has used social media, online banner advertising, bloggers, podcasts and both on-site and virtual job fairs to reach veterans. The company has a Twitter account, @UHGMilCareers, specifically aimed at potential veteran employees.

“Social media,” says Willis, “has been a great place for us to connect with military candidates.”

Companies that get it

Even in larger companies, the connection and commitment to veteran hiring often starts on a personal level. At APi Group, for example, Larson says that it’s an important issue for company owner and chairman Lee Anderson, a graduate of West Point.

Former officers are candidates for APi’s leadership development program, where new hires are assigned to seven seven-week rotations with different APi companies to get a sense of what job might be the best fit for them. The word is out about APi’s philosophy, but Larson cautions that he can’t hire every veteran who may apply: “We have a lot of people coming to us. We can’t give everybody that contacts us a job. . . . We still do it one candidate at a time.”

Angela Sherburne, program manager for therapeutic and supported employment services for Minneapolis VA Health Care System, agrees that the job outlook has improved for veterans.

“We have a lot more employers seeking us out than ever before,” says Sherburne. “I feel like I’ve never seen greater support from employers . . . they’ve really kind of stepped up to the plate and worked with us. There’s been less stigma about the struggles that veterans go through.”

Curt Jasper served for nearly 29 years on active duty for the Army National Guard. After retiring from the military in 2010, Jasper managed a golf course for two years but found himself unemployed for a nine-month stretch. He was not alone. In the wake of the Great Recession, high unemployment rates among veterans prompted new political and corporate attention to the issue.

But Jasper recalls that at job fairs, he stood in front of company representatives who would simply direct him to the company’s website. His military resume was not resonating with local employers.

“I did 10 years of operations and budget work. . . . My training budget was over $10 million,” recalls Jasper of his time in the National Guard. “A lot of the HR people don’t understand what military does.” Instead, human resources staffers asked if he was certified in the Six Sigma management system.

In the summer of 2013, Jasper went to the annual veterans’ career fair sponsored by DEED. When he got to the table for E.J. Ajax Metalforming Solutions, they didn’t ask him about Six Sigma. Co-owner Erick Ajax was there with two employees who were military veterans. The company already had a commitment to hire veterans and was interested in Jasper.

Jasper recalls that he met Ajax on a Wednesday, had an interview with the company on Thursday and was hired on Friday. Ajax says that the company has seen great success with its veteran employees and continues to hire more. Jasper says that 16 of the company’s 66 employees are military veterans. Ajax credits Jasper with strengthening the company’s veteran hiring efforts.

“We really started to discover the gold mine of hiring military veterans,” says Ajax. “Our retention rate of our veterans is somewhere north of 80 percent. They come in with just awesome transferrable skills.”


States With The Highest 2015 Unemployment For Post-9/11 Vets

Massachusetts 14.3 % Kansas 14.0 % California 10.6 % Minnesota 10.5 % Maryland 9.7 % Rhode Island 9.5 % Idaho 9.2 % Vermont 8.8 % South Carolina 8.7 % North Carolina 8.0 %
Source: Compiled by Democratic staff of the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee based on data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.


Local Companies, Big Goals

Many large, local companies have established aggressive goals to meet veteran hiring targets. Here are a few examples:

Wells Fargo
In 2014, Wells Fargo announced a national goal to hire 20,000 veterans by 2020. Today it has more than 8,200 employees who identify themselves as veterans. In Minnesota, Wells has more than 500 veteran employees, including more than 60 who have been hired in 2016.

Xcel Energy
Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy currently has more than 1,000 vet employees out of a workforce of 12,352. In a typical year, Xcel makes approximately 1,000 new hires; the company’s goal calls for 10 percent of them to be veterans. So far this year, 14.5 percent are.

Comcast Corp.
Philadelphia-based Comcast has a large presence in the Twin Cities. In 2015, it announced a goal of hiring 10,000 veterans, National Guard and Reserve members, and military spouses by the end of 2017. The company has since hired more than 4,000 members of the military community. Comcast has more than 2,200 employees in Minnesota and more than 120 who identify as veterans.


Veteran Jobs Data Confusing, Contradictory

Many of those on the front lines of veterans’ employment in Minnesota think the jobs market has improved. But according to the most recent federal statistics, Minnesota still lags behind other states.

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics put the average annual unemployment rate for all veterans at 4.6 percent in 2015, down from 5.3 percent for 2014. Minnesota’s rate for 2015 is 5.5 percent.

The contrast is starker for post-9/11 veterans. In that category, the average annual unemployment rate was 5.8 percent in 2015, down from 7.2 percent in 2014. Federal statistics put Minnesota’s unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans at 10.5 percent, the fourth-worst state in that category.

But digging into the data can prompt more questions than answers. The reported 2015 unemployment rate for Minnesota veterans is 5.5 percent, which would actually mark an increase from the 4.9 percent that BLS tabulated for 2014. That contradicts what people on the ground in Minnesota see in the veterans’ job market.

“That would surprise me,” says Jim Finley, who leads veteran employment programs at the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). He says that compiling accurate statistics on veterans’ employment has long been a challenge. DEED, which tracks the overall state job market, does not track employment specifically for veterans. On the federal level, different agencies use different methodologies and produce different statistics.

Data taken from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, for example, paints a different picture: an overall veteran unemployment rate in Minnesota of only 3.4 percent. The BLS numbers for 2015 tally 197,000 veterans in the Minnesota labor force and count 11,000 of them as unemployed. The ACS numbers count 115,458 veterans in the labor force with 3,940 unemployed.

Over the longer haul, the job market for veterans has inarguably improved in recent years. For 2010, BLS statistics showed unemployment for post-9/11 vets at 11.5 percent; the unemployment rate for all veterans at the time was 8.7 percent.

Generally speaking, Minnesota’s job market remains in better shape than the nation as a whole. In mid-September, DEED reported a seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 4 percent (August 2016), compared to a national rate of 4.9 percent.

Burl Gilyard is TCB’s senior writer

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