reWorking Michigan: Unemployed Veterans Need Help Transitioning to Civilian Careers

Feb 27, 2012

The military is a unique sub-culture of American life: it speaks in acronyms, it has its own justice system, and it places great responsibility on its members.  Yet despite their high level of training, thousands of veterans who leave the military struggle to find a job.  A new initiative in mid-Michigan is designed to bring warriors to the workplace. 

The CBS police drama “NCIS Los Angeles” depicts federal agents solving crimes whose victim is often in the Navy or Marine Corps.  So it seems appropriate that actor Chris O’Donnell is the pitch man for a new public service announcement appealing on behalf of military veterans.

(O’Donnell video):  “Eight hundred thousand people.  That’s a lot of people.  It’s enough to fill almost 10 professional football stadiums.  Think about that.  Now think about the fact that 800,000 is the number of military veterans in this country that are currently unemployed...”

The appeal comes from a private sector initiative called “America Wants You.” Though its scope its nationwide, the fight to shrink the unemployment rate among veterans is most urgent in Michigan.

“We’re the highest in the nation as far as our overall average from veterans across all, but when you look at the 9/11 (era veterans) return, it’s even higher,” says Julie Mann.  She's the CEO of JMann Consulting Group in Lansing.  She’s also a partner in a new program known as “Rock Star Warriors.”

There are more than 700,000 veterans in Michigan, and of the group that’s served in the post Nine-Eleven era, nearly 30 percent are out of work.  Through “Rock Star Warriors,” Mann is trying to match veterans’ capabilities with employers’ needs.

Mann says the disconnect stems from a communication gap.  Veterans have the discipline, teamwork and leadership skills to succeed; but she says they often have difficulty articulating those attributes.

“On the flip side, you have all of the employers coming to the recruiting population saying, we can’t find people with these skills, and it’s those exact same sets of skills,” Mann notes.  “So that distinctly says that there is a translation issue.”

Paul Ryan is the state chairman for the Michigan committee of the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve.  A veteran himself, Ryan is familiar with the insider military jargon that civilian employers find hard to understand.  He says one way to improve communication is to train counselors to teach veterans how to speak in layman’s terms. 

“To stop and say, ‘wait a second; what do you mean by that,’ and are ready to challenge these people in a constructive way to sort of modify how they describe their experiences,” Ryan explains.  “That’s a key part, as I see it, in attacking this veteran unemployment problem.”

The military itself realizes its responsibility to educate businesses about how its members can make meaningful contributions in the civilian job market.

Major General Gregory Vadnais is the Adjutant General of the Michigan National Guard and director of the Michigan Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.  He suggests the key to understanding a veteran’s skills set is to look beyond their job title.

“An MP, obviously, police and law enforcement, or a welder or a mechanic; there’s some direct translation, but not necessarily for an infantryman,” Vadnais says.  “But there is because of the leadership and management skills.”

Captain Amanda Falor personifies that point.  In the Michigan Army National Guard, she once served as a company commander, responsible for 170 soldiers.  Falor says her peers immediately understand what being a company commander entails, but in the civilian world...

They don’t understand that it goes beyond just having them come in from eight to five and then they leave you,” says Falor.  “It’s a 24/7 obligation.  And if a soldier has an issue, even if it’s not during a traditional drill weekend, that you are going to get the phone call at three o’clock in the morning.”

Employers in mid-Michigan are taking notice of the plight of unemployed veterans.  Consultant Julie Mann says within a week of announcing the Rock Star Warriors program, seven companies called to express their interest in hiring a veteran.  And Mann says she’s lined up a string of meetings with the National Guard and the VA to continue building a vet-friendly alliance of employers. 

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