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.

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.”

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The lucky one

Alejandro Arango-Escalante has a couple of roles at American Family Insurance. He is employed as a senior financial analyst, handling budget reports for the information services division. He’s also the co-lead of American Family’s employee resource group for veterans, which exists to ensure that veterans have a place where they can get together, “shoot the breeze,” and share stories and camaraderie they had in the service.

Alejandro Arango-Escalante, American Family Insurance

The vets’ ERG serves another purpose, as well. “We use it as a medium to bring both the veterans and non-veterans together and basically talk and maybe even educate non-veterans on what veterans went through in the military,” Arango-Escalante says. “A lot of times we have members who are not veterans themselves but they either have family members who were veterans and they want to learn a little bit more, or they have a father who passed away and they want to reconnect somehow to that [military] part of their father, so we have different reasons that people join.”

“Alex,” as friends and colleagues call him, cites the transition to civilian life and post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, for some returning combat vets. Military service might be tough, but so is the transition to civilian life because vets are coming from a situation where they are basically told what to do every day, and suddenly they find themselves in a job-hunt situation where they are pretty much on their own.

Arango-Escalante considers himself one of the lucky veterans who completed his Marine Corps service in the years before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He served from July 1997 to August 2001, working as an aviation ordnance technician on weapons systems for the Cobra Attack Helicopter, and he faced the question of how to translate those skills.

“So I worked on weapon systems, but how does that translate into what I can do in the real world? Basically, that was a lot of electronics work and engineering type of work. So I think that’s probably one of the biggest ones, when you’re entering the world of the workforce, how do you translate those skills?”

Education was part of the answer. While Arango-Escalante still was in the service, he took college courses on personal finance, and that’s what actually started him down the path toward career stops at Covance and Kraft Foods before joining American Family in August 2015. When he got out of the service, he used 100% of the GI Bill, as well as the Marine Corps college fund kicker (total value $35,000), to complete his undergraduate work at Adelphi University in New York in just under three years, going to school pretty much nonstop. During winter recess, he took classes at another school where credits could be transferred so that he could finish as quickly as possible, and he eventually earned an MBA in finance.

Another barrier to finding civilian employment is that some vets who have served in combat have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. The National Institute of Mental Health defines PTSD as a disorder that develops in some — not all — people who have experienced a shocking, frightening, or dangerous event. Even when they are not in danger, they might feel stressed or frightened, and recurring symptoms include flashbacks, bad dreams, and scary thoughts.

Like any disability — and that’s how the military categorizes PTSD — there are various degrees of severity and it effects everyone differently, so it’s important for employers to know that veterans who suffer from it can still be valuable employees. “An employer can identify that as a disability,” notes Arango-Escalante, “and just like any other disability, you don’t want to deny someone employment just because of that. You want to do what you can to help them through it.”

When a “fear trigger” comes, one way to sooth them, he adds, is with the kind of trained service dogs that also help the vision and hearing impaired. By allowing veterans and others who suffer from PTSD to come to work with a service dog, employers can help people deal with this disorder and remain productive workers. “A lot of what they do is called compression therapy, where the dog will just come up to you and lay on your feet,” Arango-Escalante explains. “Just that pressure and that proximity induces the veteran to pet them and take their mind off whatever happens to be affecting them at that moment.”

Willing to try again

According to the newly minted Wisconsin Veterans Chamber of Commerce, veterans are twice as likely to start a business than those with no active-duty military experience. Unfortunately, they are also more likely to fail, according to the Chamber’s Saul Newton.

“One of the things we know is that veterans are incredibly entrepreneurial,” he notes. “They are twice as likely to start a business as non-veterans are. That being said, veterans are far more likely to fail in business than non-veterans are. Roughly about 75% of all businesses will fail within 10 years. For veterans, that number is 93%, and two of the main barriers to success for veterans are technical knowledge of owning and operating a business, and access to capital.”

Nicholas Krey, regional vice president for Insurance Services Group in Madison, gave entrepreneurship a try in the economic meltdown year of 2008, not a good year to launch a business venture. The results were predictable, but he often thinks about trying again.

Krey joined the Army when he was a junior in high school in Burnsville, Minn. (class of 1998), going through basic training between his junior and senior year. After basic training, he went back to finish high school and also completed the proving ground of military occupational specialty training. He wanted to be in the active Army from the start.

Not long after Krey finished training, his unit disbanded but he was able to move on to active duty, reclassify his MOS to 19 Delta as a cavalry scout and was stationed at Fort Carson, Colo. with the Third Armored Calvary Unit. From there, he trained constantly until Sept. 11 happened, and then the tempo of the training intensified. Deployed in Operation Iraqi Freedom, his unit was in the theater but behind the initial push.

His primary duty in Iraq was as a bodyguard for the regimental commander of his unit. After leaving the military, he started a small artisanal concrete company that made concrete countertops, desks, and other things the average consumer would never associate with concrete. In another economic environment, he might have had a promising business, but it was a casualty of the Great Recession.

Krey doesn’t place all the blame on the economic collapse. “Yes, that was a really poor year to start a business,” he acknowledges, “but I don’t think I was business savvy or mature at that point of my life, so I shuttered it exactly one year later and entered my current career.”

In the intensely entrepreneurial culture of Silicon Valley, he would be celebrated because people would figure he learned something from the demise of his business and would be a better entrepreneur the second time around. If he tries again, he would spend more time understanding the broader economy and conducting research on the myriad resources available to help fledgling businesses.

“I learned a hard lesson,” Krey admits. “I went $30,000 in debt and paid it back out of my own finances. I didn’t go bankrupt. I’m very interested in going out on my own again but what I learned, what I would do differently, is to explore the resources that are available. There are far more resources and guidance available now than there was in 2008.”

When Krey spoke to IB, he had traveled from Madison to metropolitan Milwaukee for a meeting of the Wisconsin Veterans Chamber of Commerce. He attended a program on franchising and networked with veterans who decided to take that route to business ownership.

In the course of his job, Krey spends a lot of time driving between appointments. There are days when he’s very excited about what he does and there are days when he wonders whether something else would be more rewarding. If he were to take the plunge, he would become a financial adviser focusing on the veteran marketplace, including those who are transitioning or retiring after years of service. “I would specifically try to connect with veterans [just] separated from the service,” he explains. “They usually are younger adults and thinking about college, and I could help them maximize their benefits.”

If Krey finds himself building a team of employees, and he encounters a veteran looking for work, he’ll know what he’s getting — someone who is action oriented. “You’re getting someone who can think fast, someone who has seen variable problems being solved on the heel,” he states. “There usually is no clear answer, but it was about how quickly you could assimilate all the best possible options and move forward with the best course of action.”

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Employment deployment

The National Guard and Reserve are key components of the modern military, and Newton believes employers today are more willing to hire National Guard servicemen and women, even if they are scheduled for long deployments. He still sees some reluctance on their part, however, due to lack of education on the part of some employers. He also notes a tendency on the part of Guard and Reserve members to not identify themselves because they are afraid of an impact that it might have in their workplace.

Ray Gade, FLOOR360

One employer who does not need convincing is Bob Tobe, who ranks veteran talent as one of his top recruiting priorities. Tobe, owner and CEO of FLOOR360, received the Patriot Award from Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve because of the value he places on veteran employees. Among the veteran employees Tobe values is Ray Gade, commercial and residential project manager and also a member of the 115th Fighter Wing of the Air National Guard, who works as a fuel systems journeyman on F-16 planes at Truax Field in Madison.

“What attracted me to hiring Ray is the quality of person he is,” Tobe explains. “If someone serves their country and commits to the other volunteer work that he puts in, that speaks volumes about the person. My hiring philosophy, and everything we do here for all positions, is first we look for a quality individual and from there we feel as though they can learn and be trained to hold a specific position.”

Where resourceful veterans find help

With more than 1,300 veterans organizations registered with the IRS in Wisconsin, there is no shortage of resources and information available to employers hoping to hire veterans and veterans hoping to be employees themselves. Here is a brief rundown of veteran-specific resources available in the nonprofit and government sectors.

  • Bunker Labs, Madison — An entrepreneurial nonprofit with programming designed to help technology-based startups. The Madison branch focuses on business and professional mentorship, access to investment capital, and acquiring the first paying customer.
    Contact: Michael Ertmer
    Website: bunkerlabs.org/madison
  • Small Business Development Center — The statewide network has entrepreneurial programs on 12 campuses, including UW–Madison. They offer business education, regional expertise, and customized programs.
    Contact: Michelle Somes-Booher
    Website: wisconsinsbdc.org/madison
  • Wisconsin Veterans Chamber of Commerce — This newly minted organization, already 170 members strong, was formed to serve as a resource and guide for veteran entrepreneurs.
    Contact: Saul Newton
    Website: wiveteranschamber.org
  • Wisconsin Association of Veteran Employers — WAVE is a partnership of Dane County’s largest employers to address challenges facing veterans, share best practices on recruiting, hiring, and retention, and strengthen veteran business resource groups. Original members include American Family Insurance, CUNA Mutual Group, Randstad Technologies, TDS Telecom, and WPS Insurance.
    Contact: Ryan Geier, Randstad Technologies
  • Custom Canines — A service-dog academy that is expanding its program to provide more post-traumatic stress disorder service dogs, free of charge, to veterans. “We have trained over 30 dogs to be partners with vets who suffer from PTSD,” notes Founder and President Nicole Meadowcroft. “Not only do they offer a soothing presence for the vets but the partner canines are incredibly sensitive to the needs of their humans and ‘circle’ around the veteran in defensive mode so that the veteran always knows he or she has a buddy who is there for them.”
    Contact: Nicole Meadowcroft
    Website: customcanines.org

Gade, who is on a lengthy deployment this year from mid-July to mid-November, nominated Tobe because of his support in offering flexible scheduling, time off prior to and after deployment, and granting leaves of absences if needed. As a fuel systems journeyman, he works on troubleshooting and repairing all issues that relate to the fuel systems on the F-16, fixing anything from fuel leaks to fuel imbalance issues so the aircraft can fly at optimal performance.

Gade is grateful that his deployment did not cause any hesitation with Tobe and states the pros of hiring a veteran far outweigh the cons of the occasional absence due to deployments. One reason is the loyalty its builds. “For me, being away has really made me appreciate and miss my job back home, and I look forward to coming back to work,” he states. “It gives a new sense of appreciation that most employees will never experience.”

Tobe tells any employer who might be reluctant to hire a vet who is still active and could be deployed to consider the quality of the individual and the value of military training because, in his view, that outweighs the negative of them being gone for several months.

“I can’t really think about anything on a résumé that would speak more to the quality of the person than volunteering to help our country,” he explains. “That’s a pretty strong bullet point on a resume, and in our experience it has proven to be an asset and a good indicator of the quality of the person.”

Do veterans own the franchise?

Given their support structure and proven systems, franchises are ideally suited to entrepreneurially inclined veterans. At least that’s the view of David Splitgerber, a business coach with The Entrepreneur’s Source, who recently spoke at a forum involving veterans who have chosen the franchising route.

“Military veterans come from a background of having a structure in what they’ve done in the military,” he reasons. “Structure and systems, operations, strategy, and tactics are how their lives have been focused and evolved and trained during their entire career in the military.

“That’s what a franchise is. It offers a structure, a system, support, strategy, and tactics for them to be successful.”

In the franchising glossary, a franchiser is the corporate entity that provides the structure and system, and a franchisee is the individual owner.

According to the veterans in attendance, if they don’t deviate from the structure that makes franchises successful, there is a high likelihood they are going to be successful as franchisees.

“The most important thing is to follow the system,” states Tom Palzewicz of Action Coach. “Whenever we did not, we learned the hard way.”

That’s not to say there isn’t some flexibility in franchising models, but going overboard usually is a mistake. Franchisers are willing to be flexible if it makes sense, but they are cautious for good reason — they don’t want to hurt the brand, they want to protect the brand’s integrity, and they want to protect each individual franchise owner.

There are many franchise models to choose from, and some franchisees look at dozens of models before settling on one. All franchises should be able to demonstrate replication, and all must have on file with the Federal Trade Commission a franchise disclosure document that lists its operations, income, balance sheets, and patents or trademarks.

The key, Splitgerber says, is finding a fit based on one’s military experience and skill sets. “What may work for one individual in the military is not going to fit another individual in the military with a different background, a different job, or a different structure.”

Among the financing resources available to veteran franchisees are Small Business Administration loans. Alan Wedal, president of ARCpointLabs, a drug and alcohol testing service, notes that SBA programs include reduced fees for loans to veterans. “If a lender doesn’t have that, go look for someone else.”

Franchise fees largely depend on the model or brand, but Splitgerber says they range from $25,000 to $30,000 on the low end to “the sky’s the limit” on the high end. Among the options are the aforementioned SBA loans, borrowing from your 401(k) account, angel investors, investors from families, and unsecured loans. These sources can be packaged together in a financing deal.

Perry Zukowski, franchise consultant with FranNet, advised veteran franchisees to network with other vets operating franchises. “You’re in business for yourself but not by yourself,” he notes. “I have a group of franchisees that I connect with, people who have faced the same questions at one time or another.”

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