By ELIZABETH FERGUSON
Capital News Service
LANSING — Officials working to reduce high unemployment among veterans now attack the issue from both ends — they prepare veterans for civilian jobs and educate employers on how to hire veteran talent.
In 2013, the veteran unemployment rate in Michigan was 10.6 percent, the second highest rate in the U.S. To combat this, the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency (MVAA) created programs that bring veteran talent and employers together.
Local organizations are also doing their part to connect veterans to employers in their own community.
“It’s a matter of breaking down that wall between employers and veterans, and giving them the opportunity to communicate,” said Kristina Leonardi, director of strategy for Veterans Affairs.
The agency starts by preparing veterans for a civilian career through resume building and interviewing skills. Veterans’ military skills must be translated into civilian terms so employers can understand their value, Leonardi said. For example, a former air crew member or cargo specialist in the military could make a successful aircraft mechanic or service technician in civilian life.
When trained veterans want to work in a trade related to their former military occupation, the agency can get them jobs faster by helping them bypass requirements such as civilian classes needed for trade certifications or licenses.
By partnering with state colleges and universities, the agency provides similar aid to veterans returning to civilian life as students. Colleges have fast-track programs for veterans with military experience related to the degree they want.
Leonardi said the Lansing Community College military medic-to-paramedic program is an example of veteran fast-track programs. Veterans in the program don’t have to repeat course work they’ve already completed and can earn an associate degree more quickly. This paramedic program can also lead to becoming a certified nurse if veterans wish to further their education.
Not only does Veterans Affairs offer ways for veterans to find employment — it also educates employers about how to hire veteran talent, Leonardi said.
Individual veterans’ education and experience are showcased at state employer events, including the Governor’s Summit on Veterans Talent. At these events, employers can see what additional skills veterans have gained from military service.
The agency also launched the Veteran-Friendly Employers program to recognize employers committed to hiring, training and retaining veterans. This program recognizes gold, silver and bronze level certifications for top veteran employers.
To reach all veteran populations, the agency relies on local government officials and veteran service providers.
Kent County has the second highest veteran population in Michigan, including 200 homeless veterans. But that number is down from 800 in 2007, said Brandi McBride, veteran services manager at Goodwill Industries in Grand Rapids.
The reduction can be attributed to the efforts of Goodwill and other community organizations aiding veterans, according to McBride, who helps homeless veterans in West Michigan find jobs.
McBride says Goodwill uses a variety of tactics, just like Veterans Affairs, to address veteran unemployment in the Kent County area — including reaching out to veterans in jail.
There are about 20 veterans in the Kent County jail each week for minor offenses, McBride said. Goodwill helps find employment for these veterans, which can prevent jail time from becoming routine.
Not being employed strains family life and makes it harder for veterans to get the mental health care and other services they need, McBride said.
McBride is also a member of the West Michigan Veterans Coalition, a network that improves communication among veteran service providers, helping veterans get the full aid they deserve.
Its employment subcommittee is creating a new networking event to help veterans gain one-on-one connections with employers, meet recruiters and learn about companies, McBride said. The idea is to give veterans information and connections they need to stand out at job fairs and interviews.
McBride hopes this first networking event will lead to more of its kind for future veterans reentering civilian life. Up to 50,000 veterans will be returning home in the next five years, she said.
Veterans Affairs must constantly reach out to new returning veterans, Leonardi said. Veteran expos are a part of this ongoing effort to keep veterans informed. Last year, expos were held in Grand Rapids, Detroit and Marquette.
“Veteran Expos really bring community partners together with veterans, because these partners are the ones providing services and aid to veterans,” said Leonardi.
Rep. Tom Barrett, a Potterville Republican, said that, as a veteran, he is especially concerned with this issue. Barrett is chair of the State House Military and Veterans Affairs Committee.
“Veteran unemployment is a challenge we are facing as a state,” Barrett said in a voicemail message, “so it’s something that we’re going to be advocating on that committee.”
By ELIZABETH FERGUSON