GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Bob Mullen is looking for a few good veterans.
But the general manager of Auto Finance Super Center in Grand Forks is having trouble completing his mission.
“I can’t hire a veteran. It’s impossible,” he said.
In the company’s 27-year history — AFSC has stores in Grand Forks, Fargo, Bismarck, Sioux Falls, S.D., and Dayton, Ohio — veterans have worked out well, he said.
So about a year ago, Mullen said he decided to put extra effort into his hire-a-vet program in Grand Forks, partly in response to nationwide media campaigns that encourage employers to hire veterans.
“I just assumed that with the state, local and federal people talking about hiring vets, that it would be easier to find them,” he said.
Those who work with veterans programs say Mullen isn’t alone. His frustration is a reflection of the job market throughout North Dakota, according to Lou Lombardi, veteran service officer for Grand Forks County.
“Everywhere you look, there are help wanted signs,” Lombardi said.
Drew Nathan agrees.
He is a specialist with Job Service North Dakota’s Disabled Veterans Outreach Program in Grand Forks, one of two outreach specialists in Grand Forks and eight in the state.
“It’s just low numbers of veterans who are unemployed,” he said.
Nathan also is a major in the North Dakota National Guard and one 200 soldiers with the 1st Battalion 188th Air Defense Artillery Regiment who returned in May from a year-long deployment in Washington, D.C.
“We talked to these soldiers,” he said. “We wanted to help those who wanted to go to work, who did not want to go to school.”
Of the 200, he found just 27 who did not have jobs and were not planning to go to school when they returned home. And about a half dozen of those soldiers found employment in the Washington area or back in North Dakota while they were deployed.
Mullen said AFSC’s best luck over the past three decades has been with people who have retired from military careers.
The company currently has one veteran on the sales staff in Grand Forks. He’s an East Coast native who has been with the company for the past 10 years, since retiring from Grand Forks Air Force Base.
Mullen’s been trying to recruit others, but “we can’t seem to find them,” he said, adding that the company has worked with Job Service and other programs and talked with legislators and the members of the state’s congressional delegation over the past few years.
“You can’t ask for a better applicant than a veteran, someone with military background,” Mullen said.
Nathan and Roy Fillion, the other veteran specialist at Job Service in Grand Forks, say they have referred about a half-dozen candidates to the auto dealership or similar job openings in recent weeks.
“We’re always looking for the right fit,” Nathan said. “One of the things I’m frustrated with is I really don’t have a pool of professional-minded veterans like he’s looking for. They’re looking at welding jobs, or the oil fields, or going back to school.”
Nathan and Fillion also have met with airmen at Grand Forks Air Force Base who are transitioning out of the Air Force.
“There might be 20 to 50 in a class,” Nathan said. “When you ask how many are staying in North Dakota, there may be three or five. Then, when you poll them, they want to finish degrees or maybe they don’t need to work full-time.”
Fillion said many recent retirees are not ready for a full-time professional career outside of the military.
“The hardest thing is to transfer your military skills to a civilian workforce,” he said. “The jobs are there. Those that are engaged, they’re going to find success.”
The trouble, they agreed, is that North Dakota and Grand Forks have too few veterans to fill the need.
“Hire a vet. It’s a wonderful thing to talk about and it makes good press,” Mullen said. “If there are tons of vets looking for work like those campaigns tell me, I’m not finding them. It’s disappointing.”