Thinking about hiring a vet? They might be the answer to your skills gap

Almost every state official says Wisconsin must do more to find employment for returning veterans, whose unemployment rate has ranged between 13% and 15% in recent months.

Gov. Scott Walker says it, declaring 2012 the “Year of the Veteran.”

State Veterans Affairs chief John Scocos says it.

Reggie Newson, secretary of the state Department of Workforce Development, says it loud and clear.

Lawmakers in both political parties have said it with words and votes.

This is one example where state officials are not just talking the talk, they are intensifying efforts to link veterans with jobs. Recently enacted legislation has eliminated barriers for returning veterans seeking employment, including waiving the initial license fee for certain occupational licenses and allowing military training to fulfill requirements for specific professional licenses.

The DWD has increased the number of job fairs for veterans (see schedule below), and the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs partnered with Milicruit to create a Wisconsin-specific platform for an online job fair, which was held March 22.

Expectations game

When employers hire veterans, what kind of employee will they get?

George Gialamas, president and CEO of The Gialamas Co., a commercial real estate developer, has employed veterans and recently donated office space for a new veterans services organization in Madison. “First of all, they respect their job,” he said. “They respect the companies they work with, and the people they work with. There is a lot of training being done by the services that a lot of us don’t have the opportunity to teach.

“I don’t want to say it’s just the discipline they learn. The work ethic is one of the great things they have. You come across a lot of that with vets.” – George Gialamas, president, The Gialamas Co.

“I don’t want to say it’s just the discipline they learn,” Gialamas added. “The work ethic is one of the great things they have. You come across a lot of that with vets.”

Brent Bruckner, general manager of Helios Solar Works, employs veterans at the Milwaukee solar panel factory. Bruckner cited their aptitude for teamwork. “We’re a start-up business, and we require a lot out of our people,” he said. “Every day is different, every day there is something new, so we need people who can adapt and pick up the ball and run with it.”

That’s not to suggest there aren’t workforce challenges with bringing veterans into a business culture. Not only are veterans making an adjustment to civilian life, employers must be prepared to adjust to veterans. Some are ready to take charge, while others need more training and guidance.

Mary Isbister, president of GenMet, a Mequon-based metal fabricator, said under the military model, servicemen and women do what they are told and only what they are told. For some, this results in a workforce transition. “These individuals come and they are looking for guidance every step of the way,” she said. “It takes a while to help them feel comfortable in an environment where they need to make their own decisions, where they are not going to have somebody who is directing their work all the time.”

Bruckner thinks the ability of veterans to hit the ground running probably depends on their final position in the chain of command. “It should be judged on an individual basis,” he said. “We’ve had people who had to ask about things, and we’ve had other people who can take the ball and start running with it. I suspect it has something to do with where they ended up in the chain of command. Did they have people answering to them? Or did they answer to others?”

Vetting job candidates

Iraq war veteran Brian Bieniek, who is employed with the Wisconsin National Guard in Madison, warns against prejudging. Bieniek served in Desert Storm in 1991, in southern Iraq and northern Kuwait in 2005-06, and in Baghdad in 2009 and 2010. “The military is a mixture of people, so you might get someone who works better getting guidance,” he said. “In my experience, especially with these last deployments, most everything happens at the small-unit level, so you do have younger guys who are more experienced in terms of taking the initiative.”

“Most of your military service is somewhat regimented, so you’re going to get a person who doesn’t sweat the small stuff, can solve problems well, and is a hard worker." – Iraq war veteran Brian Bieniek 

Overall, Bieniek said employers who hire veterans are getting dependable people. “Most veterans, especially guys just returning from overseas, have taken on a lot of responsibility and interacted with a wide range of people from different races, creeds, and ethnic backgrounds,” he said. “They’ve done a lot of problem-solving.

“Most of your military service is somewhat regimented, so you’re going to get a person who doesn’t sweat the small stuff, can solve problems well, and is a hard worker. The military also is based on teamwork and communication, so you’re going to get a person who works well with the other employees and understands the importance of that.”

Travis Leanna, another Iraq war veteran, served in United States Marine Corps from 2005 to 2010, including a deployment in Fallujah, Iraq with First Marine Expeditionary Force out of Camp Pendleton, Calif. Taking advantage of the post-911 GI bill, which he describes as “amazing” for veterans, he now is pursuing a degree in electrical engineering at UW-Madison.

“You’re definitely going to get someone who is dedicated to their work,” he said, commenting on the benefits of hiring veterans. “One of the things that is overlooked is the time commitment. When you look at someone in the military, they haven’t missed a day or haven’t been late in a long time, and I think you get a sense of loyalty.

“I don’t know how common that is in the civilian world, but in the military it’s something we take strongly to.”

Training manual

Organizations are still in the early stages of responding to the needs of returning vets. Dan Carey, president of Edgewood College in Madison, said the college has added a veterans services coordinator and two graduate assistantships for veterans. In recent years, Edgewood’s veteran student population has risen from 37 to 115.

In terms of the skills veterans have and need, Carey cautioned against generalizing. “You can’t really stereotype that because you have returning veterans that already have master’s degrees, and you have veterans that have no prior college experience,” said Carey, himself a veteran. “Like any student, they need a ‘go-to’ person. They need a relationship that they can count on in the college setting.

“That is the number one indicator of retention and success for veterans and really for any student, but especially for veterans.”

Bruckner noted that the state’s on-the-job-training services help disabled people, including disabled veterans, make the transition to work. Under the state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation’s “On the Job,” or OTJ training program, businesses are encouraged to add a qualified person with a disability to their workforce. The state picks up 50% of the salary and fringe benefit expenses of a DVR referral hired by a company.

“We had employees who did on-the-job training programs, and we have veterans who did on-the-job training programs just to get them ready for a totally new [green] industry,” he said. “There was nobody we could hire who knew exactly what we’re doing. Those programs were very successful for us.”

2012 career and benefit fairs

The remaining schedule of career and benefit fairs designed specifically for Wisconsin veterans is as follows:

  • Tuesday, April 10, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., at Lakeshore Technical College, 1290 North Ave., Cleveland.
  • Wednesday, April 18, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., at the Wisconsin Job Center, 1900 Center Ave., Janesville. **
  • Tuesday, May 22, from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m., at the Kenosha County Center, 19600 75th St., Bristol. **
  • Wednesday, June 6, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., at St. Norbert College, 100 Grant St., De Pere.
  • Friday, June 8, from 1 to 4 p.m., at the Edgedome Auditorium of Edgewood College, 1000 Edgewood College Dr., Madison.
  • Tuesday, June 12, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., at Fox Valley Technical College, 1825 N. Bluemound Dr., Appleton.
  • Wednesday, June 27, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., at the Lunda Center of Western Technical College, 319 7th St. North, La Crosse.
  • Thursday, July 12, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., at the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center, 750 N. Lincoln Memorial Dr., Milwaukee.
  • Wednesday, July 18, from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m., at Gateway Technical College, 3520 30th Ave., Kenosha.
  • Thursday, Aug. 16, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., at Madison Area Technical College, 1300 W. Main St., Watertown.
  • Friday, Sept. 7, from noon to 3 p.m., at Fort McCoy’s Building 90, Fort McCoy.
  • Friday, Oct. 5, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., in the 3rd Floor Auditorium of the Milwaukee VA Hospital, 5000 W. National Ave., Milwaukee. *
  • Thursday, Oct. 18, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., at VFW Post 388, 388 River Dr., Wausau.
  • Wednesday, Dec. 12, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., at Moraine Park Technical College, 235 N. National Ave., Fond du Lac.

* Career fair only (not a benefits fair)

** Non-veterans also invited.

Sign up for the free In Business Wisconsin Report – your weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. Click here.