New mission for veterans: Finding a job
By Julie Forster | Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn. | Published: November 11, 2012
Theresa Reese is an Army officer with two business degrees. She had a full-time Army job for three years in various human resources roles and is now a lieutenant. Despite a lot of hard work trying to find a job in the civilian world, she's had no luck for nearly a year -- not even an interview.
"I honestly didn't think it would be that hard," said the 28-year-old from Minneapolis.
Reese has served in the Minnesota Army National Guard for 11 years, but landing a new job has proved elusive since her full-time Army gig ended.
She's still clocking a weekend a month and two weeks a year of service, but her real challenge is finding a full-time job to support her and her two children.
Many veterans find themselves in Reese's situation. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, returning soldiers face the struggle of finding a job in a sluggish labor market. As soldiers, they face even more daunting odds than their civilian peers looking for work.
Today, there are 366,790 veterans in Minnesota. Many are without a job.
New Obstacle Course
For post-9/11-era vets in Minnesota, the annual unemployment rate was 11.7 percent in 2011, just about double the state average (this is the latest state-specific data available). More recent national data show that these veterans faced an unemployment rate of 10 percent in October, well above the national rate of 7.9 percent for that same month.
Just before 2,700 Minnesota National Guard Red Bulls were deployed
to Kuwait in May 2011, the state surveyed them and found 18 percent were jobless at the time they left.
"That is well above average," said Rachel Vilsack, a project coordinator with the state's labor market information office.
The obstacles veterans face in finding work are many. Typically, if they've been in the military for a while, they lack a solid nonmilitary network. They have trouble translating their war zone skills and their ranks and military titles to corporate-speak. Employers, likewise, often have trouble understanding their accomplishments.
"If I was not in the Guard, I think it would be easier," Reese said. "Employers hire people, train them, and they invest a lot in putting you into a position. Then they run the risk of a National Guard soldier being deployed. They say, 'Maybe I won't mess with this and get into a sticky situation, and I don't want to waste time hiring a Guardsman.' "
Failure To Communicate
Publicly, employers say they want to hire veterans and support returning troops. Yet when recruiters look at military resumes chock full of acronyms and military terminology, they're dumbfounded. Jose Chavarria, 44, who lives in Fridley, retired after 24 years with the Marine Corps, working last as an aviation maintenance chief in California.
When he tried to find a job outside the military, a friend who works in human resources looked at his resume. She told Chavarria, a master gunnery sergeant (the highest enlisted rank): " 'It sounds impressive. I have no idea what it means.'
"If there was no one there to explain my resume to her, she said she'd put it at the bottom of the pile," he said.
When officials from the Society for Human Resource Management polled 359 employers this year, about half of them said one of the biggest difficulties in hiring veterans is translating military skills to civilian job experience.
Some employers are trying to address that.
Ecolab's Tess Ketelsen says it's difficult for recruiters to understand soldiers' language, and vice versa. To that end, Ecolab lists job qualifications in its job postings using general terms and comparable military language. For instance, a job posting for a production supervisor requires one to two years of operations experience in a manufacturing plant or a completed military tour as a junior officer or supervisor.
Sales rep job postings ask for a minimum of two years of work or military experience. A logistics job requires a bachelor's degree in business operations, supply-chain or management logistics, transportation or engineering, or any bachelor's degree and a completed tour of duty with a logistics role. "Our goal is to capture people and then evaluate, not to disqualify people," said Ketelsen, director of talent acquisition for the St. Paul-based cleaning and water-treatment company.
In order to increase its exposure to veteran job candidates, Ecolab has forged partnerships with recruiters that specialize in recruiting those with military experience and has partnered with military groups. Company reps regularly attend veterans job fairs across the country. This year, 6 percent of Ecolab's new hires have been veterans, up from 5 percent in 2011.
'The Perfect Time'
Erick Ajax, one of the owners of a metal forming company in Fridley, has plenty of experience hiring vets. Of the 10 hires this year at the 50-employee company, E.J. Ajax & Sons, most were veterans.
One of his most recent hires was Vincent Montez, 45, of South St. Paul, who had spent a good part of his career in the military. For Montez, the hunt for a civilian job "was rough," he said.
"A lot of the jobs I was applying for, they ask you for degrees. Even though I put down military schools, I thought in the back of my mind, they want degrees, which I don't have, but I have tons of experience. Sometimes, employers don't recognize what you bring to the job."
Among his many jobs, he built water-purification systems while deployed in Iraq in 2008 and 2009. When he came back, he held a series of temporary full-time jobs with the Army.
Ajax noticed Montez's potential when he chatted with him at a veterans job fair in September.
"He told me he liked to hire veterans because of their work ethic," Montez said of his new boss. Ajax invited Montez to interview and was impressed with his high score on an occupational assessment and his strong mechanical ability, honed as a Blackhawk helicopter mechanic.
Montez was hired just over a month ago. Ajax is covering Montez's college tuition in a four-year apprenticeship program in precision metal forming that may lead to a journeyman's card and higher pay.
"Right now is the absolutely perfect time to hire veterans," Ajax said, "because there are a lot of veterans coming back with 10, 15 and 20 years of experience who have had multiple rank promotions throughout their career."
Ajax has formed partnerships and helped design precision metal training curriculum at Hennepin Technical and Anoka Technical colleges, and finds job candidates at the job fairs after the graduations.
Chavarria was one of them. Chavarria had enrolled in a precision sheet metal class at Anoka Tech after finding it difficult to sell himself and his military accomplishments to employers.
When he retired from the Marines and came to Minnesota, finding a job was next to impossible.
"For me, the hardest thing was selling myself," he said. "I find that is a common issue with all veterans and me personally."
In the military, "my reputation preceded me, but here, no one knows me."
In a world where networking is critical to landing a job, many soldiers are a step behind.
"They have a great network in the military, but they have zero network in the civilian world," said Alan Hill, an employment specialist who works specifically with veterans from his base at state workforce centers in Bloomington and Shakopee.