An intensive effort to help Minnesota's military veterans find civilian jobs is paying off.
Most of the 2,700 National Guard soldiers from Minnesota 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division who returned from the Middle East last spring have found work, Guard officials say.
The National Guard wanted to help returning soldiers get back to work as quickly as possible and avoid problems that can stem from joblessness — among them drug and alcohol abuse and family conflict. To that end, guard officials launched an all out assault on unemployment.
So far, the strategy is working. Of the more than 500 service members who returned from the Middle East without civilian jobs, guard officials say only 35 are still looking for work.
"It's been a great accomplishment for the brigade," said Capt. Ron Jarvi Jr., who helps soldiers connect with unemployment resources.
For National Guard and reserve troops who split their time between military deployments and civilian lives, looking for a job can be tough after their tours of duty are over. They have to drop everything when called to serve, often with very little notice. That can scare off employers.
A 2011 Guard survey of 1st Brigade Combat Team soldiers found that 28 percent did not expect to have civilian jobs when they returned home from Kuwait.
Unemployment was a problem for returning service members in the Minnesota National Guard, Jarvi said.
"Anywhere from the young soldier who just graduated from high school and came back from basic training and deployed right away," he said, "to the more seasoned soldier that has had civilian work experience, that has had multiple jobs, that has had a great educational background and perhaps they were just looking for a new career because they didn't want to go back to that career that they had before."
GIVING HELP EARLY
To help soldiers prepare for the workforce, guard officials did not wait for the troops to come home before helping them. Instead, they took the help to them, overseas. Last spring, a team of military officials accompanied government, education and business leaders to Kuwait.
Representatives of Target, U.S. Bank, Best Buy, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system and the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce spent a week on a military base and led troops through a rigorous set of exercises designed to help prepare them to job hunt. The exercises included sessions on resume writing and career planning and mock interviews.
Employers found the soldiers focused and energetic, said Bruce Kiefner a recruiter for Best Buy. He said hiring veterans is a priority for the company.
"They have that get-the-job-done attitude, and that is what has really attracted us to them," Kiefner said. "They are serious yet they have a personal side and that is where we like to bridge that gap. We want the serious leader but we also want someone that can take a breath and have fun with the team — and those are typically our best leaders."
With a little coaching on corporate culture, most veterans make excellent civilian employees, he said.
National Guard officials decided to send the team to Kuwait to allow soldiers to think about civilian jobs before they became overwhelmed with thoughts of coming home.
"The reality is that you're trying to reintegrate with your spouse or with your kids or getting your paperwork filed with the state and reinstating your license and doing all of the different things that you have to do to reintegrate," Jarvi said.
Once soldiers were stateside, the initiative to help them intensified. Employment specialists connected returning guard members with job and education resources through a coordinated network of private companies and the state Department of Employment and Economic Development.
The program aims to connect veterans with regional workforce centers, make sure their resumes are updated and posted online and determine what they are missing in terms of experience or education so soldiers can concentrate on filling those gaps. It also encourages them to be persistent in their job search.
MORE PRODUCTIVE JOB HUNTS
Officials say the three-step process works, even for hard-to-place veterans.
Captain Jeff Pratt helped unemployed soldiers find work through his former job with the Minnesota National Guard, which entailed helping veterans transition from military to civilian life. He's also a success story himself.
Besides two deployments to Iraq in the last decade, Pratt, of Owatonna, Minn., also had decades of civilian work experience as a 401k administrator and financial services salesperson.
But after nearly 20 years in the National Guard, even he had difficulties landing the kind of civilian job he wanted.
Using the guard's new program, Pratt, 46, finally found the position he was hoping for.
He began working this week as a risk-management analyst for United Health Group.
"I feel great about it. I am very excited," he said. "In the military I'm a logistician, out in the world I was a 401k administrator and salesperson, and the two really drove me into how do you solve problems. And the idea behind solving problems is just risk management. So it really came full circle for me."
Pratt said the guard program made his job hunt more productive.
"When you don't have a job or you're looking for a job, there are hundreds of websites you can go on," he said. "But if you don't know what you're looking for, you're spraying and praying and it never works out very well.
"This program is designed to channel you into one spot and work that one spot and by doing that your propensity for finding what you're looking for dramatically goes up, and it just works."
Despite successful efforts to help returning soldiers get jobs, a higher percentage of veterans remain unemployed in the state compared to civilians.
The most recent federal American Community Survey estimates the unemployment rate for Minnesota's military veterans at just over 8 percent. That's nearly a percentage point higher than the unemployment rate for the state's population as a whole.