Minnesota's Veterans: The Road Back Home
Jim Finley, Director of Veterans Employment Services, Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development
The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) Veterans Employment Services program is designed to help all Minnesota military veterans — including those in the National Guard and Reserves — prepare for, find, and keep a job. The program works with employers to develop job opportunities for veterans, and to advocate on their behalf.
Comments by Jim Finley
Question: What are the greatest obstacles or barriers facing our returning service members?
It's the economy. We have 1,000 plus folks on their way back now, and they're coming back to a job market that is considerably worse than what they left. They have surveyed these soldiers and over a third of them have indicated that, after family issues, employment is the number one thing they worry about. They have reported very high unemployment rates for young soldiers.
Unfortunately, they don't always report what's behind some of those numbers. For this group that left a year ago, there were a significant number of those folks who were unemployed when they left, so obviously they are unemployed when they came back. There were some folks who could have gone and gotten the job, but because of this imminent deployment, they didn't want to start something and then have to leave it. So that made that group of unemployed even larger. There is also such a variety in the soldiers coming back. When I was in the service 35 years ago, everybody around me looked like me — 18, 19, 20 years old. Now, because of the use of the National Guard and reservists, you have people with families who are being deployed. There are obviously some restrictions that a family will put on you as far as the kind of job you can take. So it's not a bunch of 18 to 23 or 24-year-olds that are coming back and can move anyplace they want. It's a bunch of folks who are entrenched in their lives.
Besides the economy, there are issues with soldiers understanding the need to be able to talk to employers in civilian terms. They have to be able to explain to a company, just like anybody does, what the advantage of hiring them is. We explain to soldiers that about 10 percent of the population are veterans, so you've got to figure that about one in 10 employers are veterans. So about 90 percent of them don't know what you're talking about when you tell them that you drove a tank. Now if you tell them that you operated a vehicle that had hydraulics and ran on an endless track system, now they can start to relate to that and they can start to relate to jobs they have.
We spend a lot of time at our reintegration events, as do many other agencies, talking to soldiers about the fact that you took at least several months and in some cases several years to train up for this mission you were on. It's going to take at least that long to untrain. Unfortunately, society doesn't give you that much time. So we need to spend some time educating businesses on where these guys are at when they come home. And the fact that sometimes they need some minimal accommodation for a short period of time, until they get back into the swim.
Question: What kind of accommodation might a returning servicemember require?
Sometimes it's just a matter of talking to employees and letting them know that John is just back from a year, and we've changed a lot of things at work, we've got a new e-mail system, so we need to keep our eyes open and be aware when we can give John a hand with some of this stuff. We want to avoid him having to ask for help, because that is not comfortable for veterans, for a lot of them. Or things like a Traumatic Brain Injury and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. People need to understand that if that's a condition of somebody coming back, they are still very, very able to work and do their jobs. And if, as an example, you can provide somebody a Palm pilot or some way to track their schedule, because one of the TBI symptoms they are experiencing is memory issues, then that's worth doing.
Question: When you say it may take a while for a veteran to be untrained, what is that un-training all about?
It is about going from an environment that is very, very stressful and you learn to accommodate that stress — because if you didn't, it would kill you — and they are trained to bend and not break. They were in an environment where if there's a bad decision, a slow decision, or a lack of decision, someone can get hurt or worse. And they come back to a society where things are just not that critical. You've heard people talk about this adrenaline rush with soldiers. Once you get used to operating at that kind of fever pitch, it's hard to decompress from that, and it takes a while.
Question: Could you tell me a little bit about these reintegration events?
When the soldiers come back, about 30 to 60 days before, what we tried to do is have a Yellow Ribbon event, which is an opportunity to get with business leaders, educators, community leaders, law enforcement, and talk to them about what they can expect. The fact that, as a county sheriff or Highway Patrol officer, you may see guys who are driving along in the right-hand lane, all of the sudden swerve violently into the left-hand lane as they go under a bridge, only to find out when you stop them that there was a bundle or a box underneath that bridge. In Iraq or Afghanistan, that means an IED (Improvised Explosive Device), and you avoid those things — it's training, it happens automatically. So there are things that you need to be prepared for. Pay attention to who you're working with — do they have a military haircut? Take into account some of the training they've had, and the experiences that they may have had.
Question: Is there more that needs to be done to help our returning service members reintegrate into society?
I've been doing this for almost 30 years, and I was hired when it was a brand-new program in 1977. I went to work in downtown Minneapolis, and I found these files back in the archives, from right after World War II. And these employment officers and veterans employment reps were literally placing hundreds of veterans a month in jobs, because not only were there some programs for them and training programs, but the national fever was, hire a veteran. There are a couple of things that come to mind with vets. One is a bumper sticker that I saw that said, "all gave some, some gave all." The other is, somebody mentioned to me at one time that the definition of a veteran is: somebody who signs a blank check for an amount up to and including their life to the U.S. government, that is cashable on demand.
That's what I think we need to get back to. I think that a lot of these folks deserve better.