Those who want to become Minneapolis firefighters face an extremely competitive process. But being a veteran gives candidates an advantage, thanks to a new state law.
The 13 firefighters who graduated today in Minneapolis were chosen from 5,000 applicants. Twelve of them are veterans.
"Of our last 53 hires, 47 of them have been veterans," said Minneapolis Fire Chief John Fruetel. "There are a number of veterans coming back from overseas, and they've done a lot of great work for this country. And the country is paying back a little bit."
The 2014 Veterans Preference Act gives veterans extra points when applying for civil service jobs. The law is one of a number of state and federal incentives aimed at closing the employment gap for veterans.
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During the recession, veterans suffered higher unemployment rates than the general population. In 2009, unemployment was 9.8 percent for veterans in Minnesota, compared to 7 percent for non-veterans, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.
Oriane Casale, assistant director of the department's Labor Market Information Office, said post-9/11 returning veterans have had a particularly challenging time.
"I think they got the brunt of that because they were transitioning during a very deep and expensive recession," Casale said. "So that was just terrible timing and I think that was definitely reflected in the data."
Dane Conkins, a member of today's graduating class, served two deployments in the Marine Corps as a heavy equipment operator in Afghanistan. The 24-year-old said he worried about the widespread media attention on the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder on returning troops.
"I think for the most part people are very positive," said Conkins. "You know, you do wonder what people think. 'Oh, my goodness, is he going to start freaking out while he's just doing a simple task? Is he going to leave? Start throwing stuff?'"
Conkins said more research and resources to assist veterans with PTSD have helped. He calls the camaraderie of being among other veterans who understand "just very simple therapy."
Ryan Schnabl, 29, is another former Marine who graduated today. Originally from Montana, he served three deployments in Iraq and then graduated from the University of Minnesota after he left the Marine Corps in 2008. He worked as a sales manager at Life Time Fitness until he secured a spot in the cadet class this fall.
Schnabl spent a total of 20 months fighting in Fallujah and the Baghdad area. He's not intimidated by running into a burning building, and he thinks his combat experience will help him on his new job.
"The first time I got shot at in Iraq, the first thing that happens is your adrenaline jumps, your hands stop working and you don't know what to do," said Schnabl. "You don't know whether to crawl up in a ball or start shooting back. Your training comes into play. I think having that experience will only make us stronger firefighters."
Schnabl said he's had to deal with the lingering effects of war, but it hasn't held him back.
"I wanted to open people's eyes as well," Schnabl said. "You hear the things all the time, people talking about PTSD or being angry. You can look at me, I'm a functioning person in society right now," he said, even though he is partly disabled by PTSD.
Schnabl and Conkins are part of an upswing in veteran employment in Minnesota.
Five percent of veterans ages 20 and up are unemployed, compared to 5.1 percent for the general population, according to state figures.
Jim Finley, director of Veterans Employment Programs for the Department of Employment and Economic Development, said Minnesota's strong economy is helping boost veteran employment in the public as well as private sectors.
"I believe that employers really are getting the message on the value that veterans bring to a business," Finley said. "You don't have to teach a veteran when 8 o'clock comes, because they're there at a quarter to 8 ... So there's a lot of those soft skills, too, in addition to job-specific skills that make veterans such a hot commodity right now."
Finley said the issue the state now faces is finding enough veterans to fill the jobs in the companies that want to hire them.