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After combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan with hundreds of men under his command, Army Capt. Andrew McLean longed to return to his native Minnesota, bolstered by job prospects in a state where unemployment was well below the national average.
Little did he know he was part of a daunting subset in the state's job market: More than one in five modern-day veterans cannot find work. At almost 23 percent, Minnesota's unemployment rate for veterans who have served after the Sept. 11 attacks is the country's third-highest. Only Michigan and Indiana are worse. The state's rate is nearly twice the national average of 11.5 percent and more than three times the state's overall unemployment rate.
"You run into sergeant majors and lieutenant colonels who did 26 years in the military and have college educations, but yet you see them at a job fair looking for work," said Jeff Holmstrom, a 33-year-old staff sergeant in the Minnesota National Guard who spent months job hunting after returning more than a year ago from his second deployment. He had volunteered for that tour in Kuwait because he couldn't find work. "That's how bad it is out there."
President Obama has made putting veterans to work a cornerstone of his recently announced jobs plan. Obama has proposed tax credits of up to $4,800 for employers who hire vets and up to $9,600 for hiring a wounded vet.
There are an estimated 23,000 post-Sept. 11 veterans in Minnesota, with 5,000 of those unemployed in 2010, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee. Veterans of all ages in Minnesota had a jobless rate of 9.4 percent, compared with 8.7 percent for veterans in the United States.
Minnesota officials are at a loss to explain the disparity for recent vets.
Part of the problem may be the state's lack of an active military base. Recent vets largely were National Guard and Reserve soldiers.
Michael Hicks, an associate professor of economics at Ball State University who has studied the issue, said a significant factor could be the composition of the Guard units. Minnesota and Indiana, for instance, both have infantry divisions made up of younger soldiers, rather than logistical units, which typically include older soldiers.
"Younger workers tend to be unemployed at a higher rate than older workers," said Hicks, who also is a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve.
Since 2001, more than 19,000 members of the Minnesota Guard have been deployed. Although it's illegal to ask, employers may be reluctant to hire Guard members likely to be deployed again. And Guard members returning from lengthy deployments may not immediately jump back into the workforce.
"Texas places more veterans [into jobs] than any state in the nation," said James Finley, director of veterans employment programs for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. "If you are not married to a vet, the child of a vet or the parent of a vet, you live next to one. Everybody knows the value veterans bring down there."
Unlike a generation of Americans who returned home from World War II to a country flush with optimism and opportunity, the 5 million veterans in the days since Sept. 11 face a more insular and divided country.
"After a decade of war, we've gotten into the routine of thinking that thanking a soldier in an airport" is fulfilling our obligation as Americans, said Mike Haynie, executive director of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University and an Air Force veteran. "If we truly embraced our citizenship responsibility, from small business to Fortune 500 companies, there is some level of obligation that we should assume to this generation of veterans as they return home."
'Modeled after industry'
Explanations for the numbers have brought little solace to McLean, who is 28. Before returning to Minnesota earlier this year after seven years in the service, McLean was a signal company commander in Afghanistan and was a communications officer for a battalion in Iraq.
In Afghanistan, he was in command of over 230 soldiers and contractors and oversaw more than $50 million in facilities that ranged from life support to guidance systems, all with his closest supervisor 200 miles away in Kabul.
In his job hunt, area companies have been well-meaning but unaccustomed to dealing with a job applicant with his unique experience, which includes a top secret clearance.
"People think the military is much the same way it was in Vietnam or World War II where it's a simple organization that just shoots, moves and communicates," McLean said. "These days it's much more modeled after industry."
McLean, who has been offered jobs in St. Louis and New Jersey as well as a six-figure contracting job in Afghanistan, now spends about half his day monitoring websites for job prospects.
His lack of a solid network of personal contacts in Minnesota is the biggest impediment to finding work in his preferred career: account management, he said. It will require human contact -- not the click of a mouse -- to get a job here.
When Obama visited Cannon Falls recently, he had lunch with five Minnesota veterans and asked what could be done to improve their situations.
Joseph Kidd, of Stewartville, Minn., was among them. Recently retired as a Navy corpsman, Kidd, 30, was attached to a Marine Corps command and deployed to Iraq in 2007 and 2009. At the end of his career he also managed an emergency room at Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune. Yet, Kidd has found he lacks proper certification to do the same work in a civilian hospital.
"You have to take all these classes to do the same thing you've been doing for the past eight years," said Kidd, who wants to become a registered nurse. It will take at least three years to complete his general requirements. "The body doesn't change -- military vs. civilian," he said.
It is an issue Obama has proposed addressing in his jobs plan: reducing barriers to certification and licensing and allowing skills learned in the military to be applied to the civilian world.
There are success stories in placing newly returned veterans.
The Minneapolis nonprofit Resource Employment Action Center has a program that focuses on connecting veterans to green jobs, which has an 80 percent to 90 percent placement rate, said Louis Huether, a project supervisor with the Jobs for Veterans program.
Some Minnesota companies also are given high marks in hiring veterans. St. Paul-based Ecolab, a maker of cleaning and sanitizing products, was recently listed among the top 100 military-friendly employers in the country by the online publication GI Jobs. In the past year, 5 percent of hires have been veterans. Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy also was listed.
Ecolab lists open positions on www.vetjobs.com and through veteran outreach programs. It attends recruiting events targeted at recently separated military personnel.
Pauline Whelan, a director in Ecolab's human resources department, has asked the Navy for the ranks and roles of job classifications to draw connections to what the company does.
"A tank driver may assume that we understand the level of tenacity or the level of skill that they had to bring to that job," she said. "But a sales service recruiter in a corporate environment may not well understand those skills at all."
Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434