Companies target, find success with veterans
JANESVILLE Rock County businesses are getting more aggressive in trying to match jobs with military veterans, who have an unemployment rate that exceeds the general population.
Leaders of local companies say they welcome the discipline and leadership of former military men and women. Employees say they are happy and feel valued in their civilian workplace.
"The military teaches you to be a leader, be responsible and be part of a team because everyone's life depends on it," said Chris Seichter, who served four years at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii as a fuel specialist and has been working for 12 years at Kaiser Transport, where he is logistics general manager.
"The flight lines had to be ready and refueled, everything had to be ready on a timely basis and be right," said Seichter, whose experience includes refueling both Air Force One and Air Force Two. "That's the same in our world here."
The national unemployment rate for those who have served in the military since September 2001 stood at 9.7 percent in September, more than 2 percentage points above the rate for nonveterans, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Statistics are harder to come by for Rock County, but the U.S. Census Bureau said the average unemployment rate for local veterans in 2011 was 16.2 percent. That compared with a rate of 9.7 percent for nonveterans.
While there are many reasons for higher unemployment among veterans, the one most cited is that veterans and employers don't understand how military skills transfer to the civilian sector. In addition, studies say veterans often are uncomfortable "talking up" their military experiences and skills because it could be misinterpreted as bragging, which the military culture frowns upon.
The effort to hire veterans comes at a time when many companies, particularly in the manufacturing sector, are trying to close a skills gap that's leaving hundreds of thousands of jobs unfilled.
It's also an effort to improve an economy that analysts say will be flooded with 1 million veterans entering the workforce over the next four years.
"Overall, I think there's been a much more significant emphasis among companies wanting to help veterans," said Bob Borremans, executive director of the Southwest Wisconsin Workforce Development Board.
Appealing to vets
Kaiser Transport and Data Dimensions, both in Janesville, are two examples of many local companies reaching out to veterans. They are joined by a multitude of state and federal agencies responsible for veteran services.
Borremans' job center in Janesville sponsored a job fair in September that opened an hour early just for veterans.
Seven hundred jobseekers and more than 40 area employers participated. Seven veterans left with job offers, and 14 others had interviews scheduled.
One of those was Shawn Woolever, who received two offers. Unfortunately, family obligations prevented the Janesville man with nearly 20 years of military experience from accepting either.
Still, he left the fair having positive interacted with several potential employers.
"It was a good experience," said Woolever, whose primary military experience is in supply and warehouse operations.
Todd Kaiser owns Kaiser Transport, a less-than-truckload trucking company that specializes in hauling machines and equipment to 48 states and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec. It has about 100 employees—17 percent of them veterans—who work out of terminals in Janesville and Los Angeles.
"We have had very good luck with the service people," Kaiser said. "They understand discipline, understand the rules and are very committed.
"Many of them are in leadership positions."
Chuck Watson, the company's chief operating officer, said Kaiser struggles to get its name in front of veterans looking for work.
Often, he said, unemployed veterans are channeled through hiring and re-education programs that are difficult for small employers to access.
"Most of the time, it's all set up for the Fortune 500 companies," he said.
When they can find them, veterans' military experience translates well to Kaiser, Watson said.
"Going to work for the military is being deployed, and with us they don't punch a clock and are not just doing piecework but are instead involved in the whole process," he said. "People assume veterans see things as black or white and follow a strict manual. That foundation is good, but I really think they have the leadership abilities to problem solve in the gray area.
"That's important in our business because we compete head-to-head in the dog-eat-dog trucking industry, and our niche is we need to be creative."
Beyond the manual
Seichter, Jeff Borgwardt and John Rinehart are three Kaiser employees who agree. All are veterans who say their military experience has been helpful in their civilian careers.
Borgwardt spent four years as a heavy equipment operator at Air Force bases in Florida and Alaska. Since 2007, he's worked for Kaiser, where he is now the company's senior yard and training manager.
"I was in a remote spot in Alaska, and if you did something wrong, it could be a life-or-death situation," he said. "I had to think ahead so I didn't get a dozer stuck in the Yukon River.
"That's a process that helped me here. Nobody does less-than-truckload like we do, and to do that we have to be creative, proactive and think way ahead."
With more than 18 years in the Air Force as a transportation fleet manager, Rinehart is the most recent of the three to join Kaiser, coming on board last year as fleet manager.
He said Kaiser's business model is built on a sense of urgency and teamwork, much like the military.
"A lot of times people feel like they are owed something," Rinehart said. "That's why the military works for this company.
"With a few exceptions, you're not in the military for yourself."
Rinehart admits to a few struggles in transitioning to civilian employment.
As a manager, he said he's sometimes too direct, too blunt. He's also working to better understand terminology.
"In the military, something is said one way and you understand it," he said. "In the civilian world, it's said a certain way, and you have to figure out what's being said.
"It just not as direct."
A national study released this summer found companies sought veterans because of their leadership, teamwork, character and discipline.
The study by the Center for New American Security also found that companies reported difficulties with veterans translating their military experience to the civilian workplace.
Lisa Henke, vice president of human resources for Data Dimensions in Janesville, said her company has been aggressive in its efforts to recruit veterans.
"We've been quite active in the community with that message, and I think people are hearing that and applying for jobs with us," she said.
Data Dimensions specializes in document conversion and management. In recent years, the company has grown significantly.
The company posts its job openings at the Rock County Job Center, where listings are available to only veterans for the first 24 hours. It also posts to the vetsuccess.gov job board.
Data Dimensions has participated in several job fairs where veterans were given priority access. It also has reached out to agencies that routinely help vets in their search for work.
"The veterans come to us with a good work ethic, they understand what it means to be on time, and they bring a sense of loyalty," Henke said.