Mission Employable: Getting Jobs for Vets
For most of the last four decades, Jim Finley has dedicated his life to a single mission: working for the state of Minnesota to help veterans land jobs after leaving active military service.
Just about anyone who is working on veterans’ job issues in the state knows Finley and his deep experience. Faced with inquiries about veterans’ employment issues, many who work in the field offer the same advice: “You need to call Jim Finley.”
The Edina native served in the Army from 1975 to 1977, based at Fort Lewis, Washington, serving with the Ninth Infantry Division, which has since been deactivated. He first took a job with the state in March 1977, then briefly worked for detergent maker Purex Industries Inc. in sales and marketing before returning to state government in 1983. Since 2008 Finley has been director of Veterans Employment Programs for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED).
Individual veterans can tap DEED’s two-dozen veterans’ employment representatives—all of whom are veterans themselves—at its WorkForce Centers across the state. Reps help vets polish resumes and cover letters, and offer coaching for navigating the job-search process. DEED is also a resource for companies and can help firms implement veteran-friendly practices and connect them with candidates. DEED’s annual veterans’ career fair, a draw for both companies and job-seekers, is the largest such event in the state.
“As veterans, we understand the transition,” says Finley. “Everybody goes through a transition when they come out of the military.”
But there have been challenges. As the Great Recession took hold, Minnesota saw an above-average unemployment rate for veterans; federal statistics put the overall unemployment rate for vets in the state at 9.8 percent in 2009. That spurred many companies to action, making commitments to hire veterans.
A DEED survey in early 2012 found that about 20 percent of the 2,700 deployed Minnesota National Guard members had no job to return to back home. Finley was part of group that went to Kuwait to hold workshops on cover letters, resumes and other job-search fundamentals. By October of that year, Finley says that a new survey found that only 2.5 percent of that group did not have a job lined up.
A steadily improving economy has since helped veterans and all job-seekers. Finley points to the raw numbers he sees on DEED’s MinnesotaWorks.net website, where companies post jobs and job-seekers post resumes.
How well is Minnesota doing at hiring veterans? See “Veterans’ Battle at Home”.
“Three years ago, there were twice as many resumes on that system as there were jobs,” says Finley. “If you go into that system today, there’s twice as many jobs there as there are resumes. It’s turned completely around.”
What do companies looking to hire veterans need to be aware of in 2018?
Our advice to employers has been that if you find a veteran who’s qualified for your job or that you’re interested in bringing on and training, then do it. Don’t wait a few days. Because in that few days’ time that veteran is still looking and somebody else is going to make them an offer. I don’t mean this to sound like a used-car sale, but I do want employers to understand that veterans are very anxious to get to their next mission and they don’t waste a lot of time. And if you are lucky enough to find somebody that looks like a really good fit or a good fit for training, then make them an offer.
Are there areas in which Minnesota can improve for veterans’ employment?
A big focus of ours lately has been apprenticeships and OJTs (on-the-job training) because it’s an opportunity for veterans to not only use that great array of soft skills that they picked up in the military but also to learn new job-specific skills in jobs that will get them that family-sustaining-wage job. When you start talking about apprenticeships, people think right away about the trades. But there are thousands of registered apprenticeships in the country. There are a lot of different things you can actually work [on] as an apprentice that are outside the building trades.
The Minnesota Department of Veterans’ Affairs is at the head of that effort. They’re the ones that approve schools, they’re the ones that approve programs for companies. They’re the ones that not only help companies set up those programs, but they’re also the ones that go back to those companies and make sure that everything is going as planned, that the veteran is getting the training that they’re supposed to be getting and that they’re keeping up with the schedule.
Are there other categories where you see challenges?
We run three special projects in Minnesota. One is for women vets, because their unemployment rate is higher and they are traditionally underserved. We run a program for Native American vets for the same reason. The largest group of unemployed [people] in Minnesota is Native Americans up in northern Minnesota, living around the reservations. The third project is for veterans coming out of a correctional facility.
When the unemployment rate gets this low, employers are more willing to take a chance on somebody they may not have when the unemployment rate was 6.5 percent. It’s provided a lot of opportunities, this labor market. Everybody is benefitting from a good economy in Minnesota. But those are the three groups we are focusing on now.
We’re also looking at another group that is really struggling, and that’s veterans my age, older veterans. There are a lot of different reasons for that. People who were working in very solid, steady jobs [and] something happened with the company—they were bought, they were sold, whatever—and now you’ve got, as an example, a non-degreed engineer out looking for work as an engineer but they don’t have the degree. They’re competing with younger people and people their own age that have degrees. So that makes it more difficult for them. With those kind of veterans, the solution to that is training; more training. Typically, when people lose jobs, one of the first things they look at is “How do I train up for the next job?”
When companies make pledges to hire large numbers of veterans, does the rhetoric match the reality?
I think most of them are legitimate. I think they’re really anxious to do this. I think the ones that have been challenged to meet those numbers have run into the situation we’ve been talking about—just a really low unemployment rate. When they made their pledge, the unemployment rate was 6 percent; it looked like this was an achievable goal. Now, when the unemployment [rate] is half that, it’s much more difficult.
I believe their heart is still in this and there’s a lot of really great Minnesota companies that have made those pledges or joined other companies to make those pledges. Many of them are our partners. Many of them come to our career fair every year, so we know they’re serious. Now the challenge is the only thing I can’t do—manufacture veterans. We talk to a lot of companies that really struggle to recruit anybody, but particularly veterans. Veterans are about 7 percent of the population so when you’re really serious about hiring a veteran, when you’re looking at those numbers, it’s a challenge.
How did you get started doing this work?
I went in to file my claim for unemployment [in 1977]. I was going to go to school. The gentleman that I talked to, a guy by the name of John Klatt, who was a senior veterans’ employment rep, told me about this new program [President] Jimmy Carter had. It was for disabled Vietnam-era veterans to help other disabled Vietnam-era veterans find jobs. And I can remember saying to him at the time, “That sounds like a good program, but I’m going to go to school because my goal is sales and marketing.”
He said, “Well, I understand that, but it’s my responsibility to let you know now that you’re no longer eligible for unemployment insurance because you just turned down a suitable job.” So I said, “Do you want me to start Friday, or should I wait til Monday?”
What was the climate for veterans’ employment like in the 1990s?
You may recall in those days there was a lot of negative press about something we now refer to as “PTS” [post-traumatic stress]—not “PTSD” [post-traumatic stress disorder]—because when you start out right away talking to somebody about their “disorder,” it changes the conversation.
We struggled with that and we struggled with employers. All it takes even today is one story on the news about a service member to taint the opinion on veterans for a lot of employers. And it takes a while to come back from that.
Why was veterans’ unemployment in Minnesota so high a few years ago?
When we started seeing that rate going up, we were worried. As it turned out, what was pulling the unemployment rate up in Minnesota was the unemployment rate for young veterans, 18 to 24. But this was maybe not so [because] they were veterans, but the fact that they were 18 to 24 years old in an economy where people were not retiring because we had just been through a tough spot and people’s 401(k)s were down. There were a lot of folks that just decided to keep working.
What do veterans need to know about civilian jobs?
In our world, we’re very sensitive to people’s feelings. We’re very sensitive to their self-esteem, so when we give out work direction it probably comes in three or four different ways. We may have a meeting, there’ll be an email, there’ll be a follow-up…In the military, they don’t care about feelings, really: they’re trying to save people’s lives. Communication is typically very direct, many times loud and only once. If you pull out that style in a meeting room at your new job, it’s not going to play well. Part of what veterans need to understand is that this is a new mission.
How did DEED try to address the issue?
In 2012, we had the 34th Division Brigade Combat Team (BCT). They went to Afghanistan and then to Kuwait. They were part of the drawdown. There were 2,700 Minnesota soldiers in Kuwait, and we did a survey regarding employment and how many were coming back to a job. We found out through that survey that about 20 percent of those soldiers, over 550, had no job to come home to. And when [Minnesota National Guard] Gen. [Richard] Nash heard that, that was just absolutely not acceptable. That was not something that we were going to live with.
Gen. Nash put together a team of people to travel to Kuwait and talk to veterans and brief veterans on everything from resumes and cover letters to interviewing skills and social media. We were there for about 10 days. We briefed almost 1,100 soldiers, because there were soldiers from other states that were serving with the 34th Division, and they were going home without a job also. Only 550 were from Minnesota. We spent our days doing workshops all day long and then at night we did one-to-one consultations with people on resumes and interviewing skills.
Does underemployment remain an issue for veterans?
We know it. DEED as a department is looking to help what we now refer to as “career-seekers” to find a job with family-sustaining wages. Now, that may be different in different parts of the state, but typically it is a job that pays above $14 to $15 an hour and has benefits. So that is our target. The fact of the matter is that we have all kinds of employers at the veterans’ career fair because we have all kinds of veterans. We do have veterans who are looking for part-time jobs, but our focus and our goal in the vets’ program, just like it is with DEED, is family-sustaining-wage jobs.
What is the starting point for a “family-sustaining wage”?
When we talk about this, we’re looking at around $30,000 a year, which is around $14 to $15 bucks an hour. And then, of course, the benefits are so important, too.
How was the turnout at this year’s career fair?
It was down, and that’s indicative of the unemployment rate; when the unemployment rate is very low, we have a waiting list for employers to get into that career fair. Last year, we had 242 employers show up and about 750 veterans. This year, because we changed venue, we couldn’t fit as many employers in there, but we still had almost 200. But the veteran count was down [to] about 650.
We know that what’s affecting that is more people are working. More people are able to get full-time jobs, but there’s still this segment of the population that struggles for a job with that family-sustaining wage and benefits. Those are the folks that we refer to as underemployed. Some of them are working a couple of jobs, some three, just to keep enough money coming in, but many times none of them have benefits. They’re still walking a tightrope regarding their health, hoping that things are OK and nothing happens.
For underemployed vets, what do you see as remaining hurdles?
We went through this period of very, very high unemployment, and many people lost their jobs. American business is very, very effective and efficient. There were companies that found out, “Geez, we only need six guys back in customer service, when before times got hard we had 10.” So they learned to live with six. And so those four opportunities are gone. There’s a number of companies that have gone through that: Leaner and meaner is kind of their goal.
Burl Gilyard is TCB’s senior writer.