reWorking Michigan: National Conference May Benefit Michigan Veterans

Jun 25, 2012

At more than 700,000, Michigan has one of the nation’s largest military veteran populations.  That’s a number any state would be proud of.  But Michigan also has America’s highest rate of unemployed veterans.

That’s one reason why the state was selected to host the National Veteran Small Business Conference and Expo this week in Detroit.  It’s the largest federally sponsored event of its kind.  As many as 10,000 veterans are expected to come to the Cobo Center in search of jobs and access to benefits. 

WKAR’s Kevin Lavery looks at some of the challenges and opportunities facing Michigan veterans.

Amanda Falor knows what it takes to run a company.  Though she’s never purchased her own office building or made a payroll, Falor knows something about leadership.  As a company commander in the Michigan Army National Guard, Captain Amanda Falor has been responsible for the lives of as many as 170 soldiers, both on and off duty. 

Having lived them firsthand, Falor also knows the values veterans bring to the hiring table.

“They have the ability to roll up their sleeves and get down to business,” says Falor.  “They’re also not afraid of a challenge.  You’re going to put something in front of them, and they’re going to accomplish it.”

Still, after discharge, many veterans struggle just for the opportunity for accomplishment.  Data from the state of Michigan indicates nearly 30 percent of veterans who’ve served since the post-9/11 era are unemployed.

“And how those highly skilled people don’t connect with the job opportunities is beyond me,” wonders Chris Holman. 

Holman publishes the Greater Lansing Business Monthly.  He’s also the chairman of the National Small Business Association.  Holman sees the disconnect between qualified veterans and available jobs as a national crisis.   He says armed services related agencies like police departments and security companies generally understand the skills veterans bring to the workforce.  But he says the private sector has been slower to include veterans who have technical experience but haven’t been to college.

“A lot of people come out of the military with equal training and more than equal experience levels but do not have that degree,” Holman says.  “So, it’s incumbent upon the employer to say, no, no; I’m looking for a skill set.”

But even with financial access to education, many veterans in Michigan are not tapping into their full benefit. 

Jason Allen, the senior deputy director for the Michigan Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, says when it comes to veterans using the GI Bill, Michigan comes in dead last at number 53, behind Puerto Rico and Guam.

“We’ve got on average about $193 per veteran using the GI Bill, our peer states like Ohio are at $334,” Allen explains.  “Ohio has 5,000 more veterans using the GI Bill than Michigan does, with approximately the same number of veterans.”

Allen is concerned about that figure.  Between eight and ten thousand discharged veterans locate or come home to Michigan each year, a number that’s expected to rise as the military reduces its forces.  Allen notes there’s some inherent challenges whenever the military hands off its troops to the VA.  He says his agency and its partners must do a better job bridging the gap.  

Other veterans may be interested in entrepreneurship.  Organizers of the national conference this week in Detroit want veterans to know about the option of running their own business; whether on their own or as a franchise.

“Veterans are perfect for franchising and franchising is perfect for veterans,” says conference presenter Melanie Bergeron.

Bergeron is the chair of Two Men and A Truck International in Lansing, and serves on the board of the International Franchise Association.  She says about 10 percent of Two Men and A Truck’s franchisees are veterans, and she proudly states their less than one percent failure rate.  Bergeron says franchises offer a familiar structure.

“Military vets understand time management, respect for authority, core values; and most good franchisors have all of those things in place,” Bergeron says.

Bergeron says the International Franchise Association has set an ambitious goal: to hire 75,000 veterans and 5,000 so-called “wounded warriors” by 2014.

In these economic times, Bergeron acknowledges that veterans have been disproportionately hit.  The Detroit conference features 22,000 available jobs.  Her goal is to see every veteran who walks into the conference walk out with an offer.

The National Veterans Small Business Conference and Expo begins Tuesday at Detroit’s Cobo Center.  The event runs through Thursday. 

ReWorking Michigan examines our evolving economy, as the people of the Great Lake State explore new ways to make a living and build a future.  A project of WKAR NewsRoom, WKAR-TV and WKAR Online.