WASHINGTON – Private employers and armed forces members need to bridge a gap between military and civilian job descriptions to boost veterans' employment, Xcel Energy Inc. CEO Ben Fowke told a congressional committee Wednesday.
The leader of the Minnesota-based utility giant wants to use veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to help address significant worker turnover Xcel expects in the next decade.
But to do so, Fowke told the Senate and House Joint Economic Committee, veterans must learn to explain how their military experience equates to jobs such as "linesmen and women, plant operation and maintenance workers and engineers."
Those are all jobs that Xcel would like to fill with military veterans in the coming years as its aging workforce retires, Fowke explained at a hearing focused on finding ways to drive down unemployment among those who have left the military since the 2001 terrorist attacks.
In 2012, veterans who left the military since the attacks had an unemployment rate of 9.9 percent, compared with 7 percent for veterans generally and the national unemployment rate of 8.1 percent. In Minnesota, post-9/11 vets had an unemployment rate of 14.1 percent in 2012, compared with 6.8 percent for veterans overall and a state unemployment rate of 5.6 percent.
While the 2012 unemployment figures are down for recent veterans, committee co-chairwoman Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said they need to go lower. Klobuchar and Rep. Erik Paulsen, R-Minn., oversaw Wednesday's hearing, which focused on ways to translate military experience into civilian skill sets.
"The military has a job title, a job classification, which may not intuitively translate to 'That's an electrician,' " Fowke said in an interview. "We're trying to encourage both sides to take the extra step and realize, 'That skill is just like this skill.' "
A key gap in hiring veterans, he testified, "has been the ability to translate military skills to civilian job requirements, with the veteran unable to articulate his or her experience ... and our hiring leader unable to recognize the military experience they have and how it is comparable to the work we do."
Fowke said 12 percent of Xcel's 11,000 employees are military veterans, but most are older. As the company searches for veterans in the 25-35 age group, it will need better coordination with members of the military. So Xcel has developed a "translator" on its website to try to link military experience to the company's current job openings.
Fowke also pushed for armed forces members to take basic aptitude tests before they separate from the military so that prospective employers can decide how — or if — soon-to-be veterans fit into civilian hiring plans.
He called for partnerships between companies, the military and veterans' groups similar to a program Xcel runs with St. Cloud State University "helping the students relate their experience to our job openings."
Early intervention was a theme common to all speakers at the hearing, as well as the politicians running it. Klobuchar and Paulsen both pointed to a Minnesota National Guard unit that cut its unemployment rate significantly by beginning its civilian job transition program while still deployed in Kuwait.
Besides starting early, "it would be helpful if military training could lead directly to civilian certifications [of job skills]," Fowke said.
Klobuchar said she has tried to help with proposed legislation to make paramedic training received by military members count toward civilian paramedic certification so that veterans can reduce their time in training.
Whether specific testing for civilian certifications can be built into military service is unclear. Fowke said attempts to engage active-duty military personnel in civilian job planning can be a logistical problem.
Paulsen commended Xcel for implementing "best practices" in hiring veterans that other companies could adopt.
Like Xcel, many U.S. companies have developed hiring programs aimed at military veterans. But timing is critical, experts say, because the longer a veteran is unemployed, the more difficult it is to bring him or her into the workforce.
Representatives of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Texas Veterans Commission who spoke at Wednesday's hearing called for information-sharing between the U.S. Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs that currently does not exist.
The lack of communication sometimes keeps military-to-civilian transition programs from knowing when service members plan to leave the military.