Business owners enjoying a long-awaited lift in the economy could benefit from tapping into a particularly worthy workforce candidate this year: the returning veteran.

For all the progress, and promises, we've made to create meaningful employment for our returning military men and women, the reality is that we need to do more.

Just released statistics from the Department of Veterans Affairs show that while national unemployment rates have declined, 53 percent of veterans have no job when they come home. The average duration of their unemployment has risen from 18 weeks to 22 weeks, and the youngest vets face the steepest climbs.

There's good news, too, according to the 2015 Veterans Economic Opportunity Report. Veterans are taking advantage of their GI Bill education benefits to pursue higher education and certification programs. Participation in the Department of Veterans Affairs loan guarantee program continues to grow, allowing more veterans to buy affordable homes.

And female veterans are doing very well, attaining higher earnings than non-veteran females.

But many who work with returning vets say stubborn challenges remain, and not enough civilians are paying attention.

"Veterans come from a highly structured environment, and sometimes the transition to the civilian world can be difficult," said Al Salvosa, a Brooklyn Center police officer who served two tours in Iraq.

"They struggle with translating their experience to employers, and sometimes they lack the education and credentials employers are looking for, despite doing the same job in the military."

Facing challenges

Carrie Scheffler, director of the Employment Action Center at job developer Resource Minnesota, also sees a delay with veterans "finding their routine and their place." Often, they return home to numerous challenges, including changed personal relationships, lack of housing and mental health issues.

Finding a job becomes a priority to ground them, she said.

"With vets, we help them identify their transferrable skills and how to communicate those skills in the language employers use now."

Vets having the best luck, she and others agree, are tapping into fields such as IT, training and development and construction. Locally, Xcel Energy has a robust recruitment program for returning veterans, placing them into careers as utility workers, linemen and gas fitters.

Many vets also are finding a good fit as paralegals and EMTs, or in law enforcement.

While some veterans would likely steer clear of high-stress work such as the latter, "for others, that chaotic, stressful environment will be exactly what they need to thrive," said Trista Matascastillo, program officer for the Veterans Voices program at the Minnesota Humanities Center.

"It's not the same chaos as the battlefield."

A friend of mine who works as a barber mentioned recently that he wishes more veterans would consider joining his profession. After barber school and an apprenticeship, they could make a good living in a "low-stress environment, just talking, building relationships, and enjoying the familiar camaraderie of other men. Everyone would come to them."

The bottom line is that employers, and veterans, should think creatively.

"I can't think of any one job that's the exact right job for every vet," said Matascastillo, who served for 16 years in the military, including service in the Navy, Marines and Minnesota National Guard.

"We need vets to identify what they might be interested in and not say to them, 'Well, you did this in the military so you should do this in the civilian world.'  "

Resources available

Local and national resources, including, are ready to help.

A free hiring fair for veterans, sponsored by the Minnesota Wild, will bring together employers and job-seekers in February.

Every summer, the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development hosts a career fair for veterans in the Twin Cities area. There are resources online at

And Rob Barr, executive director of the career site, is launching a program later this month called to help vets connect with "veteran-friendly" colleges and universities for their GI bills. Employees with at least a bachelor's degree, Barr noted, will earn 84 percent more, on average, than job seekers who completed only high school.

Kynnie Martin, veteran recruiter for Xcel Energy, has already seen "a big cultural difference" since she began hiring vets.

"Departments with a lot of vets tend to have lower turnaround rates," said Martin, a former Army intelligence officer. "Veterans coming out of the service are really looking for another place they call home. They're looking for a company that appreciates their contribution.

"Once they find that place, they will stay there."

Salvosa adds his own endorsement.

"We are individuals who understand working under pressure, teamwork, loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage," Salvosa said.

Those attributes aren't typically listed on a résumé.

They should be.

612-673-7350 • Twitter: @grosenblum