Every week, a group of largely unemployed military veterans meets at a Minnesota Workforce Center to practice job interviewing.
Many of the veterans are in their 40s or older, seeking new jobs after losing one to the recession. For them, age isn't the only obstacle to overcome. Some still need to adjust to a civilian mindset, said David Wold, a veterans employment representative for the state Department of Employment and Economic Development.
"Veterans make great employees but sometimes they are not the best interviews," Wold said. "One of the reasons is because in the military we were taught to give short, terse, direct answers."
Nationally, the unemployment rate for post-Sept. 11 veterans is about 12 percent. The state Department of Employment and Economic Development does not track veteran unemployment specifically.
There are around 23,000 post-Sept. 11 veterans in Minnesota. Unemployment figures for this group are difficult to nail down, but veterans advocates and state officials say they tend to be unemployed at higher rates than other veterans.
Jim Finley, who directs veterans employment programs at the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, says around 12 percent of post-Sept. 11 veterans are unemployed. That's much higher than Minnesota's overall unemployment rate of 5.7 percent, as reported by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development in December 2011.
The challenge will be even greater this spring, when 2,700 Minnesota National Guard soldiers arrive from Kuwait. A survey of these troops last year found an estimated 44 percent won't have jobs when they return home. Some will go to college, but many will be unemployed.
A bill moving through the Minnesota Legislature aims to make it easier for veterans to find jobs by allowing private employers to give veterans preference in hiring decisions.
"Successful reintegration into our communities needs to be one of our top priorities," said the bill's sponsor, state Sen. Ted Daley, R-Eagan. "Employment is a crucial vehicle in this transition."
Daley said jobs are key to helping veterans readjust to civilian life after their military service.
Another bill would increase veteran preferences for state government jobs and contracts.
If service members are to weather the challenges of making the transition to civilian life after combat, finding stable employment is critical, Wold said.
"Employment is just a really big piece of the puzzle," he said. "If they get that piece in place a lot of the other stuff falls in much better and their life is more successful more quickly."
State workforce officials say they are already in contact with the Red Bull units stationed in Kuwait in advance of their return in May. They hope to help soldiers prepare for their job search before they even get back to Minnesota.
The experience of the older workers could prove valuable for officials who aim to help returning veterans.
UNLEARNING MILITARY TRAINING
During a roll playing session at the workshop in which veterans interview each other and critique their answers, Jerry Morales, a former Marine, tells another veteran to make sure he talks more about his job skills and less about his family.
"The last thing I want to know as an employer is about your personal life," said Morales, 49, of Golden Valley, Minn. "The last thing I want to know is that you actually have kids because that means you have to take time away from my company when they get sick."
Morales, a graphic designer who is back in school for web design, has been searching for a permanent job for almost two years now.
"It's tough out there, especially in my field," he said. "There are a lot of designers that are doing it on a freelance basis."
The veterans employment program in Brooklyn Park has successfully obtained first interviews for all its participants. But veterans employment representative Mark Mann said only 27 percent land jobs. To improve that rate, he said, veterans will have to unlearn some of their military training.
"We are taught as a military member that you are part of a group, you are part of a bigger thing, you are not an individual," Mann said. "And now, they have to go beyond that training and take ownership of some of the stuff they did accomplish and try and translate that and not only in their resume but in the interview also."
Jeff Mickley, a 54-year old former Navy machinist who lives in Golden Valley, said he's been looking for a job in engineering and graphic design since 2007.
He has been coming to the workshop for several weeks and finds it helpful because the organizer who helps him sends out personalized job listings targeted to each veteran looking for a job.
"He's been doing it for the last two weeks and I think I've applied to six, seven jobs off of it that he has found."
Mickley is hopeful that he'll find a job soon.