The Veteran Hiring Gap

What Minnesotans are doing to put returning soldiers to work.
The Veteran Hiring Gap

EVEN AS MINNESOTA'S TOTAL UNEMPLOYMENT RATE HAS BEEN DROPPING, one group is still disproportionately affected by joblessness. According to a February article in the Star Tribune, Minnesota’s unemployment rate for recent veterans (service members who have returned from deployment in the last decade) is nearly 23 percent. That’s the third-worst veterans unemployment rate in the country, and nearly twice the national average. It’s also three times Minnesota’s overall unemployment rate.

HIRE A VETERAN MONTH

Governor Dayton will proclaim July “Hire a Veteran” month. Minnesota’s Department of Veterans Affairs, the National Guard, and DEED are planning events, such as a job fair on July 11.

See BeyondTheYellowRibbon.org and PositivelyMinnesota.com for more information.

What is going on? Why do veterans fare so poorly in our state? It’s possible that some employers don’t want to hire individuals who might be redeployed and have to leave for a year. Another possible culprit is Minnesota’s lack of a military culture. Minnesota has no active-duty military bases, points out Dennis Davis, founder and chief translation officer at Metafrazo, a Minneapolis human resources consulting firm that specializes in veterans employment; there are only the National Guard and Reserves. Most Minnesotans never encounter soldiers unless they are at the airport. As a result, employers here often have only foggy ideas about what military service entails, so they are less likely to identify veterans as prime candidates for their job openings.

“It’s very foreign,” Davis says. “And it’s not that Minnesotans don’t care, because they do. They’re very caring, very giving towards the military. But they don’t understand. All they see is what is in the movies and the media. They don’t understand what value [service members] bring.”

More’s the pity, because veterans are often very strong in the skills employers value most. “I think maybe a typical stereotype is that military members are only suited for security guards, police officers, and [jobs] in public safety,” says Major Aaron Krenz of the Minnesota National Guard. “But we have a lot of service members who have high-tech skills. Soldiers who drive a tank, or who are artillerymen or infantrymen, perform various tasks on GPS systems and other technical equipment. They have to learn those things in the short amount of time that the Army gives them. So being adaptable and flexible and able to learn under time constraints is an attribute that our service members have.”

Some of the skills veterans bring to the table are intangible, but are equally important. Soldiers tend to work well in teams, says U.S. Bank recruitment director Chris Hill. They are used to following policies and procedures, and they often have assumed a level of responsibility that other applicants in the same age group have not.

“We have trouble with getting people to come to work on time,” Hill says. “We have people literally who will abandon positions. We have individuals who have a very difficult time contributing in a team environment. But with a veteran, you can be fairly confident that that will not be the case.”

“Everybody kind of expects teamwork and leadership from a person coming out of the military,” says Jim Finley, director of veterans employment services at the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) in St. Paul. “But what they may not understand is the safety skills. Talk to an employer that’s had issues with OSHA or workplace accidents about hiring veterans who are trained to keep themselves safe and everybody around them safe, right from the day they enter boot camp. It’s a huge deal. It’s not common at all for people to have that kind of training.”

Women veterans have not only learned technical skills and teamwork, but they’ve also learned to be unfazed in a stressful, primarily male environment. “If you hire a woman veteran who has been deployed, I don’t think it gets any better than that,” says Janet Polach, a leadership consultant at Leadership Solutions, Inc., in St. Louis Park. “You put her on a male-dominated shop floor, and she’ll be just fine. They know how to survive; they know how to thrive.”

On top of all these incentives, there are monetary inducements. The Obama administration has made veteran employment part of its jobs plan, offering tax credits ranging from $2,400 to $9,600 per person for hiring veterans. But Minnesota’s veteran unemployment problems persist.

Luckily, some Minnesotans have made it their mission to change the situation. Here’s how they are tackling the challenges returning service members face and putting soldiers back to work.

Problem: Many veterans, especially infantrymen, are young and inexperienced at job hunting.

Solution: Give them a chance to hone their résumé-writing and interviewing skills.

The 2,700 soldiers of the Minnesota National Guard’s 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division, were deployed in May 2011 for one year. They represented the single largest deployment of troops from Minnesota since World War II. A survey conducted in December 2011 showed that 19 percent of them expected they would not have a job when they returned.

To help these soldiers sharpen their employment skills, state agencies and local and federal stakeholders created an interagency military employment work group. This group sent an employment resource team of 11 people to visit the soldiers in Kuwait from March 1 to 7. The team included Krenz, Hill, Finley, and eight other people, including representatives from DEED, Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MNSCU), three corporations, the Saint Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, and the Minnesota National Guard.

“The idea with the trip to Kuwait was to make these folks competitive,” Finley says. “They’ve been out of the country for a year. Their civilian counterparts have been interviewing, have been improving their résumés and getting experience, and meeting with employers. Meanwhile, these folks have been off doing their duty for us. We wanted to provide them with some information and some insight, not only as to the skills that it takes to get a job, but also as to some of the things that were going on back in Minnesota directed at them as far as resources and some of the opportunities that might exist.”

Why go all the way to Kuwait when the soldiers would be back in Minnesota in just a couple of months? Team member Marvin Hamilton, group director for distribution for Target, says the division had a little downtime in country after the completion of its mission. The employment resource team took the opportunity to get soldiers thinking about employment issues while they were in Kuwait, where there would be few distractions, instead of waiting until they got home and were surrounded by family, friends, and obligations.

“We broke out into three separate groups,” Hill says. “Within each group, there was always a military individual, an individual from DEED, and a corporate partner from U.S. Bank, Target, or Best Buy. And then there was a group of two individuals from MNSCU who floated throughout each team during these seminars.”

“We [wanted] to give them a leg up on the things that they need to know,” Krenz says. “What the economic climate is, what industries are growing, where the jobs are going to be. And then to help them prove their employability readiness skills, i.e., the résumé writing, the 30-second elevator speech for networking, how to approach a job fair, and then how to conduct a behavioral-based interview.”

Hamilton, a veteran himself, brought examples of excellent résumés from Target to help service members learn how to sell themselves. But he says he was even more focused on teaching them to interview well.

“Nobody can interview for you,” he says. “You have to do that on your own. What I was focused on was breaking down the most commonly used interview style, which is now the behavior-based or experiential interview, where people want you to look to your past and come up with actual examples of how you performed in certain situations or conditions. Ninety-nine percent of the time, military experience is going to translate, because what we measure are human dimensions.”

Problem: Employers are often unfamiliar with military jargon and have a hard time spotting relevant experience on résumés.

Solution: Coach both veterans and employers on effective military-to-civilian translation.

Finley says there are a few things intrinsic to the military experience that soldiers have to unlearn when they come back to the civilian world. One of them is military jargon.

“About 7 percent of Minnesotans are veterans,” he says. “Which means about 93 percent of the people you’re going to talk to, as far as employers go, are not veterans. [In the military], acronyms are a way to get the message out quickly. But civilians don’t always understand what they’re talking about, and if they’re familiar with a term, such as NCO [noncommissioned officer], they don’t know what that means. They don’t know that an NCO is a supervisor or a manager who may be in some cases in charge of thousands of people.”

On the trip to Kuwait, Krenz says he and the rest of the team often saw soldiers struggling to articulate how their military experience translated into the corporate world. “So that’s what’s been probably our most important focus,” he says, “helping them identify those military skills and attributes that companies are looking for, and then giving them the words. Helping them articulate why that company should choose them, based on their experience and skill sets.”

Back home, employers can also make an effort to become more military-friendly by learning a bit of the “alphabet soup” and being meticulous during the interview process. “I think on the employer side, you do have to be patient with them,” Polach says. “Keep asking questions so that you really understand. Until now, everybody around them has known what they were talking about.”

Davis founded Metafrazo to help employers translate from military to civilian terms. When employers don’t understand military jargon, they can miss ideal candidates, he says.

“They get a résumé that’s full of acronyms, and they don’t understand what they mean, so it just goes into a different pile,” he says. “Yet these people are very, very valuable, and they’re people that definitely would be a fit. If you take somebody in the communications world in the military, they would be a great fit in IT. You take somebody in logistics, they’d be a great fit in logistics and transportation in the private sector. But corporate America in Minnesota doesn’t have a lot of people who can translate that and sell it to the hiring managers.”

Problem: Recent veterans are part of a demographic that already has higher-than-average unemployment. They’ve been deployed while their peers have been furthering their civilian careers.

Solution: Give veterans credit for equivalent experience gained in the military.

Experts agree that demographics play a role in Minnesota’s veteran employment issues. Younger workers tend to be unemployed at higher rates than older workers—and Minnesota’s soldiers are largely members of the infantry, who tend to be young.

Even though soldiers learn useful skills while they are deployed, they often lack the proper certification to do the same work in the civilian world. For example, field medics may come back experienced, but still years away from a nursing degree.

To help bridge this gap, MNSCU has created an online program—the first of its kind—that allows service members to enter their military occupation and see what kind of credit they may be awarded at Minnesota’s colleges and universities.

“It’s an online tool [the Veterans Education Transfer System at mnscu.edu/military/transfer.html] where they can say, ‘I was this in the Army—where can I get college credit for it?’” says MNSCU military education director Gina Sobania. “Between that and the fact that education benefits are better for service members nowadays, our enrollment within the last four years for service members and veterans has increased more than 57 percent.”

Problem: Employers don’t know how to find veterans to hire.

Solution: Streamline the job-seeking process. Point employers and service members to a common starting point.

According DEED’s Finley, around 1,500 websites in the United States are dedicated to veterans employment searches. It’s a baffling array of options. To make sense of the jumble, DEED created a single site, positivelyminnesota.com/veterans, where veterans and employers can come together to find each other.

“If you go to that site, there are three easy steps for hiring a veteran, and three easy steps for veterans who want to become employed,” he says. “One of the things that it does is it puts [veterans] in touch with veteran employment reps in the work force centers, who are resource experts for their local areas. They know everybody. They not only know other service providers and where the resources are, but they also know the employers. And they know the employers that are hiring.”

The site also links to minnesotaworks.net, where soldiers can post résumés and employers can post job opportunities, both for free. Both parties can tag their profiles with an American flag icon, which indicates that they are veterans or veteran-friendly employers.

DEED also introduces employers and vets to each other in person. “We’ve got a big career fair that we do every year in Minnesota specifically for veterans,” Finley says. “It attracts 1,000 veterans every year. It attracts between 80 and 100 really, really good Minnesota companies, and it puts them in the same place at the same time, and every year many of these soldiers get jobs by attending that job fair.”

Problem: Veterans in Minnesota are poorly understood and often forgotten.

Solution: To be determined.

The whole job-seeking process for veterans would be easier if soldiers were simply more in the public eye in Minnesota. Polach says that a decade ago, when troops were first deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, churches, employers, and other organizations spoke often of the military; now, not so much. As a result, all many of us know of veterans is what’s on the news—and unfortunately, that’s not always good.

“Sadly, you have incidents that just every once in a while happen that cause people to get very, very worried,” she says. “This incident with the staff sergeant over in Afghanistan [who killed and burned 16 civilians]—that put the whole transition services thing back many months, I think, because people then get worried about how stable these people are.”

Even barring incidents like these, Hamilton says people often have inaccurate perceptions that make veterans seem somehow different or even abnormal. “I think one of the things that is somewhat stereotypical of people’s views of folks coming out of the military is that they’re overly rigid and that they’re not flexible,” he says. To the contrary, “nothing goes as planned in the military. Your plan is only good until your first obstacle, and then you learn to think on your feet, to respond, to do what it takes to accomplish the mission. And I see that frequently with the leaders that we’ve hired from the military—that when something goes wrong, they keep their head. They’re cool under pressure, and they think through the problem in a pretty quick way. Those are skills that you can use in any situation.”

Polach would like to see someone in the Twin Cities launch an advertising effort, such as a billboard campaign, to promote veterans hiring efforts and get soldiers back in the public eye. Whatever is done, though, it’ll have to be soon, and it will have to be sustained. The economy is getting better, but at the same time, more soldiers are coming home.

“We need to keep our focus on this,” Davis says. “This isn’t just a temporary problem; we’ve gotten to this point over the course of years, not just months or days. One hundred seventy-five thousand people separate each year from the military. Proposed budget cuts have set another 100,000 over the next five years, so that takes us over 200,000 every year. If we’re not paying attention to it, the problem is only going to get worse.”