More than 500 National Guard members woke up at home this morning for the first time in more than a year. In the next few months, they'll reclaim their civilian lives.
But for many, finding a job will be an important challenge. National Guard officials say about 20 percent of the nearly 3,000 Red Bulls brigade servicemembers returning home from Kuwait will not have a job waiting for them.
Maj. Gen. David Elicerio, the commander of Minnesota's 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division, knows that challenge. Three years ago, he struggled to find civilian work after serving in Iraq.
"I know well the frustrations that our soldiers have coming back to Minnesota and trying to match the skill sets of a commander in Iraq in charge of 15,000 soldiers over 9 provinces in Iraq to the job market in Minnesota," Elicerio said.
To speed the transition back to working life for returning soldiers, National Guard officials and Minnesota businesses are helping them maneuver through the employment process.
In the coming months, the Guard will work with private employers and officials from the Department of Employment and Economic Development to host job fairs around the state and at regional workforce centers throughout the summer.
Elicerio recently told a group of business representatives what happened when he returned from his last tour of duty overseas. In 2009, he contacted 3M officials about job opportunities and received a less-than-enthusiastic reception.
" 'Hey, I'm a chemical engineer with over 25 years experience in health care industry and I know you're big in health care products,' " he recalled telling them. "They said 'You're right. We've got an entry level, engineering job for you, part time, in our facility in Kansas City.' I said, 'eh, that's not going to work so well, either.' "
Elicerio told the story at one of several events the Guard is hosting to connect businesses with unemployed servicemembers returning from Kuwait this year.
The Guard is teaching employers some Army basics — like the difference between a division and a squad and what job descriptions and ranks mean. Elicerio said Guard members often overlook the importance of describing their military experience to civilians.
"It's important for you as an employer to understand, 'aha, he has a very specific set of skills in solving these types of problems. I've got that problem. I now have the in-house skill sets to address that concern,' " Elicerio said. "So we need to teach you what we do."
The unemployment rate for Minnesotan veterans is more than three-times the state's civilian unemployment rate of 5.7 percent. Last month, representatives from several major companies including Target, Best Buy and U.S. Bank helped soldiers spruce up their resumes and prepare for job interviews while they were still in Kuwait.
Now, other companies are also targeting their recruitment efforts on returning Guard members.
Military experience is often lost in translation, said Ronda Wescott, president of Public Sector Services for Travelers insurance. The St. Paul-based company employs 1,200 veterans across the country.
"In corporate America we deal with job descriptions," she said after speaking to attendees at the National Guard employers' event. "So if you had a job description in the military ... it's probably full of Army lingo. Just take that job description and translate it into what it means generally, to a lay person and that would work well."
Wescott said Travelers' recruiters are learning to translate military experience into possible jobs at the company. But she said service members need to do a better job being open with potential employers about what they did during their time in the military.
"We don't hear enough about what really that soldier is doing to understand how to translate it ourselves because I think there's been a hesitancy to talk too much about things that have happened in Iraq, for example, or wherever it is," Wescott said. "But I think there's a way to do that without giving anything away."
The push to help returning Guard members has also made its way to the State Capitol. Last month, Gov. Mark Dayton signed a bill that allows employers to set a hiring preference for veterans.
State Sen. Ted Daley, R-Eagan, who sponsored his chamber's bill, said employers have an opportunity to help veterans find jobs.
"The great thing is, it's not a mandate," Daley said. "It doesn't force any company to do this. It's permissive language which allows them to do it and not to be worried or troubled by any lawsuits that they could face for preferring to hire veterans."