During his time in Afghanistan, Army Reservist Viktor Avdulov performed a crucial role: helping Afghan officials develop streets and other infrastructure.
But in the year since he came back home to Minnesota, Avdulov has found looking for work "pretty tough," he said. The 30-year-old Eagan resident, who also served in Iraq, is hoping his prospects brighten soon when he graduates from Metropolitan State University in St. Paul.
Avdulov and more than 1,000 other veterans received special attention Tuesday at the seventh annual Minnesota Veterans Career Fair held at the Earle Brown Heritage Center in Brooklyn Center, sponsored by the state Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED).
"It's a lot better than looking online, because you get to meet people face to face," Avdulov said. "A few people [recruiters] asked me to e-mail résumés."
Two years ago, Minnesota had the nation's third-highest rate of unemployment for the youngest military service members returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. For that high-risk group — vets ages 18 to 24 — it's dropped from a high of 23 percent to about 14 percent, said Jim Finley, director of DEED's veterans employment programs.
Still, that's a stubbornly high rate, given that Minnesota's overall unemployment rate of 5.3 percent is one of the lowest in the country and that over the past year the state has added more than 43,000 jobs. The jobless rate for vets of all ages is about the same as for the entire state population, Finley said.
More than 1,080 service members or vets attended the fair, which included booths staffed by 130 employers, 10 educational institutions and about 15 service providers, including Veterans Affairs counselors and state and community agencies.
DEED Commissioner Katie Clark Sieben said the state is committed to improving veterans' lives, "and that means helping them find meaningful employment."
The "meaningful" part often requires help from vocational counselors, said Neil Krenz, a readjustment counselor at the Mobile Vet Center of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
He said he talks to many vets returning from war zones, some just a few years out of high school, who learned new skills in managing people or helping carry out big military projects but can't get hired for similar civilian jobs.
"They want a fulfilling job when they come back" and for some, their old job is gone or is no longer challenging, Krenz said. "They have the skills that qualify them to do more."
He gives such vets an career-interest profile test to pinpoint skills and related jobs. Sometimes they need more formal education to land such jobs and can use GI benefits to cover educational costs, Krenz said.
In addition, combat veterans often need employer and counseling support to transition back to civilian life, Krenz said. "Veterans are not the same person they were when they left," he said.
Applying military skills
Greg Putnam, 54, of Minneapolis, repaired electronic devices for the Navy for three years until he was discharged in 1983. Putnam said his Wells Fargo job went south to St. Louis last year and he didn't want to move, so he's hunting for a financial services or electronics job.
"I like the variety of employer," he said. "There is a good concentration of potential employers. … You find out about some places you didn't know about."
Job fair workshops showed veterans how to do 30-second résumé talks and how to tailor résumés to specific jobs rather than use the same one for all job applications.
Wells Fargo, which has attended a few fairs, has a support group for employees who are veterans, said Philomena Satre, a bank vice president. She said the fair lets the bank inform vets of the various job types the bank offers beyond teller and loan officer. The bank's booth hosted more than 50 veterans, many of whom were well prepared and asked good questions, she said.
Last year, the bank hired a few vets to work at branch offices and this year, it will follow up with several vets who came to the job fair, said Amanda Altwegg, a booth recruiter.
Finley said more than 30 vets were hired at last year's job fair, most by U.S. Bank. At least 60 more were hired after the fair, employers reported.
Veterans often need help to translate their military service skills into terms that employers can see are applicable to jobs they offer, Finley said. For example, instead of telling an employer about operating an M1A1 Abrams tank, a veteran could talk about driving endless-track equipment that housed a computer and a GPS tracking system.
That's the kind of driver the Metropolitan Transportation Network is looking for to drive school buses, said company recruiter Stacey Booth. She said 35 of the company's 177 drivers are veterans.
"With a military background, a lot have truck-driving experience — that's a big step," she said.
"The military have a great work ethic and teamwork."