Effort tackles jobs for vets

FAIRMONT – Job hunting is no easy task, and it becomes even more complicated when the job-seeker is a young soldier who has been out of the civilian loop.

“Some of these veterans go into the service young, right out of high school,” said Doug Landsteiner of Martin County Veterans Service?Office. “They hadn’t held a job before, so there’s no job for them to come back to. … When they’re wearing the uniform, they’re used to having enough money to pay the bills and for their family. These people are highly trained and capable and they want to work, especially the family men. They want a new mission like the one they had before.”

However, in many cases, it is easier said than done.

“For some, there’s employment, for others, there’s not,” Landsteiner said. “Military skills aren’t converted as easily in the civilian world. Licensing and certifications are stumbling blocks when they were trained by the military.”

But an effort during the last deployment of the Minnesota National Guard’s seems to have helped many soldiers beat the odds.

“What we do is a statewide effort; it’s the same approach in Fairmont as it is in Bemidji,” says Jim Finley, Minnesota Veterans Employment Services director.

The Yellow Ribbon campaign to help returning veterans was formed in 2005. Veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan were seeing higher-than-average unemployment at the time. The program reached out to the service providers, such as the Department of Veterans Affairs, Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development and the federal Veterans Administration. Thus began a comprehensive program for soldiers’ reintegration.

“When a group returns back to the U.S., a Minnesota team of 50 providers are sent to the site,” Finley said. “We’ve been to Camp Shelby in Mississippi, Ft. Dix in New Jersey, many of these sites. About 5 to 10 days are spent going over the benefits, services and resources available to them. It’s also a way to welcome them home and let them know we’re anxious to get them back to Minnesota.

“We also follow up with them at 30, 60 and 90 days because a lot of them do miss out or forget things from the initial briefings because they’re more excited about just being home.”

During the most recent deployment of the Minnesota National Guard, training and job-seeking for soldiers began before they even boarded the plane to come back to the United States.

“When the most recently deployment began in May 2011, they were scheduled to be gone for a year,” Finley said. “At that time, Minnesota [Department of Employment and Economic Development] surveyed 2,700 of the soldiers and learned that 550, or about 20 percent, would be coming back to no jobs. This was a great concern; this is not what we wanted our veterans to come back for.”

An interagency employment work group began collaborating. It included hiring managers from Minnesota companies such as Target and Best Buy. Names and e-mails of unemployed soldiers were collected, and there were Skype sessions with employee representatives.

“Our sole mission was to help these soldiers find good jobs and get them in contact with Minnesota businesses,” Finley said.

Overseas in Kuwait, the group worked with soldiers to help them draft resumes and identify employment and training goals.

“Then we began thinking what if we sent a team to Kuwait to provide workshops,” Finley said.

That was exactly what they did in March, when representatives of the Department Of Veterans Affairs, the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development and St. Paul Chamber of Commerce spent a week in Kuwait working with the deployed Minnesota soldiers.

“We were split into three teams, and we held three four-hour workshops each day,” Finley recalled. “We learned a few more things too. Instead of that 550 guardsmen, we actually had 1,080. That was not only some soldiers who decided to look for new jobs, but we had contact with soldiers from 10 other states. Minnesota was the only state to send and give these soldiers training.”

The effort paid off. By September, the number of potentially jobless soldiers was reduced from 20 percent to 5 percent.

“As of right now, that number is down from 550 to 35, or 1.3 percent,” Finley said earlier this week.

But veterans, especially the younger group, still face the same job-seeking difficulties as non-vets.

“Lack of experience is still an issue,” Finley said. “It’s that circle of they want job experience, but they can’t get that experience because no one will hire them. But there are some of those who don’t know how to look for jobs … In Minnesota, we have a very focused effort to make it simple for soldiers and businesses to connect. We direct them to one website, positivelyminnesota.com, which is the [Department of Employment and Economic Development] website. Otherwise, just looking for jobs on the Web can be overwhelming.”

A recent announcement of Walmart’s intention to hire 100,000 veterans nationwide has also caused some excitement.

“This is a good thing because there are a lot of companies that will do things because Walmart did it,” Finley said.