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Returning vets fill the labor gap

One solution to the labor shortage is hiring military veterans, but transferring their skill sets can be a barrier.

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From the pages of In Business magazine.

Each day, 550 service members leave the military and return to civilian life, but one does wonder whether civilian life is actually tougher than non-combat service in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, or Air Force.

That’s because there is still some reluctance by employers to hire them, partly because employers don’t always understand how their skills translate to the private sector. In some cases, this particular misunderstanding can loom over the mission-focused advantages veterans bring to the civilian workforce.

When a business hires a veteran, it’s getting a mission-focused self-starter with a strong work ethic and leadership qualities that, in many cases, have been learned the hard way.

Employers recognize that, but sometimes they have no idea how to translate a veteran’s skills into their organization.

“It’s a lack of education, in my opinion, within both the military and civilian workforce, and understanding the nuance of a military veteran and what they were doing in the military, and how those skills can be transferable,” says Ryan Geier, business development manager for the Madison branch of IT staffing firm Randstad Technologies. “It’s not necessarily that they don’t have the skills coming out of the respective job that they’re doing in the service. My experience of the last 10 or 15 years is that our employers just don’t have a very good understanding of how to put those skills to use.”

In this look at veterans in the workplace and veteran entrepreneurs, we spoke to veterans who are making their mark in business and to organizations providing support.

Veteran entrepreneur

Army Reserve veteran Jim Blair (left), co-founder and managing partner of Aberdean Consulting, works with representatives from client company nPoint Inc. in Middleton. Blair believes his military experience, including a stint in Kuwait during Operation Iraqi Freedom, helps him as a business owner.

Jim Blair, co-founder and managing partner of Madison’s Aberdean Consulting, owns one of Wisconsin’s 65,000 veteran-owned businesses. The information technology firm, which provides managed services to small and midsized companies, started in 2003, the same year as Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Blair was part of both.

In Madison, Blair is responsible for business development and strategy for an IT advisor providing local and cloud-based solutions. In Kuwait, where he was deployed one year after launching the business, he served as a logistics officer.

Blair served in Kuwait from September 2004 through October 2005, and then retired from the military after 23 years in the Army Reserve. When he returned, the business was on life support and had to be quickly turned around.

Employer incentives for hiring veterans

• Federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit: Receive up to $9,600 for hiring certain veterans; www.doleta.gov/business/incentives/opptax.

• Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs Veterans Employment Grant: Employer can receive up to a $5,000 grant for hiring a 50% or more disabled veteran. Visit www.wisvets.com or call 1-800-WIS-VETS.

• In addition to the federal GI Bill benefit, Wisconsin offers an additional GI Bill, which pays for tuition and fees for veterans at Wisconsin technical colleges and universities. The cost of additional education or training a veteran employee may be covered under the Wisconsin GI Bill. More information about these benefits can be found at: www.WisVets.com or dva.state.wi.us/Pages/educationEmployment/Education.aspx.

• Also, here is the DVA’s employment resources page for veterans: dva.state.wi.us/Pages/educationEmployment/EmploymentVeterans.aspx.

He can speak as both an employee and an entrepreneur, and he believes employers who have been reluctant to hire vets should take their experiences into account. “A lot of that is going to be about the individual and the specific experiences they have had,” Blair states. “The military skill might not be directly transferable to some of the work they do outside the military, but the experiences of what they went through are really good skills.”

In Blair’s case, what he was trained to do and what he was deployed to do were completely different things. He served as a logistics officer and was deployed to provide support operations for one of the desert camps in Kuwait, but he ended up with other duties, including the responsibility for closing Camp Doha, a logistics base the military operated during the war.

“The thing that was interesting is that my actual career experience in IT was extremely helpful to me when I was deployed, based on the assignments I was given. There was a lot more benefit to the military from my having business experience than maybe the other way around.”

One of his employees went to school for criminal justice and joined the Navy, hoping to learn about information technology while in the service. He actually was trained in IT administration and managed physical and virtual servers on an aircraft carrier, and that training is perfectly aligned with what he does in the private sector.

When employers hire a veteran, what are they getting? Perhaps Blair is biased, but veteran status is one quality he looks for. In those other-world military experiences, he notes there is the conviction that you’ve got to get the job done, an experience that not everybody gets to the same degree. “There are people in all walks of life that we look for. It isn’t just somebody who has been a veteran, but I do think one thing you get from somebody who has been in the service is some level of determination, some level of teamwork, and some persistence,” he explains. “We don’t really give up on things as much. You have to go the extra mile.”

Blair, whose father was a veteran and also a business owner, saw how his parents dealt with the ups and downs of running a company. In the military, there is a chain of command to follow and depending on your rank, you quickly learn to salute smartly and carry out orders. Yet one military experience that was humbling for him, and helpful for his future role as a business operator, was to have subordinates critique him as part of an after-action review.

To hire a veteran:

• Contact local veterans employment representatives located in the Department of Workforce Development’s Job Centers at (888) 258-9966, or contact Gary Meyer, office of veteran services program manager at (608) 267-7277, or gary.meyer@dwd.wi.gov. This team can also speak to the programs offered through the federal and state vocational rehabilitation programs for hiring veterans, apprenticeship, and on-the-job training opportunities for hired veterans.

• To hire any Wisconsin National Guard or Reservists, contact Alex Hughes at the Department of Military Affairs, Wisconsin Employment Resource Connection, (608) 242-3748, or Alexandria.p.hughes.mil@mail.mil.

• Contact the local state job center in your area or go to www.jobcenterofwisconsin.com. There you can post job vacancies, search for veterans, or search for other candidates by skill sets, as well as review posted resumes.

• The Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs can refer and answer your questions about entrepreneurship grants; call 1-800-WIS-VETS (947-8387) or visit www.wisvets.com.

• To find veterans leaving active duty and seeking employment: www.ebenefits.va.gov; www.military.com/veteran-jobs; www.recruitmilitary.com; www.usaa.com.

“We would go out and do exercises and the evaluators would bring everybody together, and even if we were officers, I would have to listen to somebody who was subordinate to me questioning why we did what we did. What was our reason for that? They thought maybe there was a different way to do it. So early on I was exposed to people working for me questioning me.”

Yet another military practice also applies to running a business. When he was a young officer, one of the things he had to accept as a leader is that everyone else eats first. You have to make sure that everyone else is taken care of before you take care of yourself. That rule stuck with him in the business world when the company was struggling and he was trying to meet payroll.

“I learned the hard way that was also a quality you needed to be successful in business,” he states. “You have to take care of other people before you take care of yourself. I realized that sometimes I couldn’t pay myself, but I had to pay the people who worked for me. You have to take care of your people to reach the bigger goal.”

Even with that type of servant leadership, Blair needed good business resources, especially when one of his business partners, one month after his return from the service, walked away from the business. That left Blair in the lurch and he had 30 days to figure out his next move. He turned to the Small Business Administration to take advantage of the loan guarantees they offer veterans. The SBA program and the ability to get a guarantee with a bank — the federal government guarantees 50% of your loan if you were to default, reducing the bank’s exposure — is a “pretty big deal,” he says.

Under a bill passed in the House of Representatives, Blair and other vets would no longer have a time limit on their ability to use educational benefits provided under the federal GI Bill. Blair has not taken advantage of the GI Bill to advance his career, but several of his employees with military service have taken advantage of the benefit, which is not chump change.

“I did the math on it and for me the benefit was probably about $65,000,” Blair says. “It would have covered tuition or paid for housing or food if I had gone back to school, but I was knee deep in running a business so going back to school was the last thing on my mind. I had to focus on the business, but if I had been in a position where I could have used it, or would have needed to use it, it would have been extremely helpful for me.”

(Continued)

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