Army veteran Stephen Hampshire had been plodding along in a good job as a collision estimator, dreaming of work that allowed him to follow his heart and work with his hands. But he had bills to pay and a family to support.

Then COVID hit, and his company was in trouble. In March, his boss asked him to jump on a conference call: "If you're on this call," the boss said, "we have to let you go." How would his family survive through the worst time in generations to be looking for a job?

"That's a kick in the teeth, ain't it?" Hampshire said.

It was also an opportunity.

Hampshire's story is becoming an increasingly common refrain in Minnesota among veterans and others who are changing career paths during the pandemic. Hennepin Technical College, where Hampshire went to retrain, has seen an increase in laid-off workers pursuing a second career. And in fall semester, 65 students are using the GI Bill for tuition.

"The reskilling is important during COVID times because of the massive unemployment claims," said Dave Bellefeuille, director of education and employment for the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs.

Veterans and eligible family members had already been taking advantage of GI Bill benefits in recent years, with 38% more participants receiving state GI Bill benefits in 2019 compared with the previous year.

Though that figure is largely flat this year, Bellefeuille notes that school enrollment is down generally due to COVID.

"They come out of the military with a certain skill set," Bellefeuille said. "That skill set may not be something they want to do as their forever job. We recognize the importance of vets coming back and their understanding they need some reskilling, upskilling or complete reinvention of who they are."

"Job retraining is definitely a common theme among veterans this year," said Ray Douha, the director of the veterans employment program at the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. "Folks are seeking more recession-proof jobs, especially if they've been laid off, so they look to retrain to be more competitive in the ever-changing work environment. Also, employers like hiring veterans both for their skills and work ethic and the goodwill associated with it — which is a good business decision, too."

In April, Hampshire connected with Dale Boyenga, the instructor of Hennepin Technical College's medium and heavy truck technology program in Brooklyn Park. Fixing trucks was a job that would pay well, give Hampshire more stability and feed his soul. Boyenga liked his go-getter attitude and mechanical background, and connected him with Central Truck Service in East Bethel, which immediately hired him.

On this Veterans Day, eight months after losing his job, this 32-year-old Army veteran with one kid and a second due in February finds himself in the ultimate win-win scenario: Hampshire will attend school for free, using GI Bill benefits he never expected to use. He'll work full time through this two-year internship-based program, getting paid as he accumulates credits. And he'll be in a job he loves.

"Not only is my tuition covered, but I get to earn a paycheck while going to school to cover all life's other expenses," Hampshire said. "Starting at my new job was the best first day of work ever. They put me to work taking apart this big old massive engine they use on tugboats, taking it apart, cleaning and studying the parts. And I loved it."

Students like Hampshire fill a workforce need as well. There's such demand for diesel mechanics that nearly all students in the medium/heavy truck program receive job offers as soon as they enter the program.

Improving prospects

The unemployment rate among military veterans is better than among the nonveteran population in Minnesota and nationally. In October, the national unemployment rate was 6.8% among nonveterans but 5.9% among veterans, according to the Department of Labor. Minnesota figures show the same trend, with veterans posting slightly better unemployment rates than civilians. Those numbers are a significant improvement over April, when unemployment spiked, but even then, veterans fared better, with an 11.7% unemployment rate compared with the overall rate of 14.4%.

Such trends are a significant improvement from a decade ago, when Minnesota's youngest soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq had among the highest unemployment rates in the nation.

Veterans, who make up about 6% of Minnesota's population, tend to be less likely to be employed in service jobs and sales and office jobs, but more likely to be employed in jobs in natural resources, construction, and production, transportation and material-moving.

What Boyenga, himself a Navy veteran, sees for veterans is an opportunity to make up to six figures annually in a truck repair industry that's often short on people.

"There aren't as many people willing to do what I call work for a living — to get their hands dirty — and that's true for any blue-collar trades," he said. "They're all screaming for people. So the pay and benefits have skyrocketed because of it."

A frequent misunderstanding among veterans is not fully understanding what educational benefits are available. The GI Bill is often thought of as something that pays for college, but it's more than that, Bellefeuille said. The GI Bill is a training avenue that can be used for apprenticeship programs, license and certification fees and on-the-job training programs. Bellefeuille has seen the GI Bill used to get trained in jobs as diverse as underwater welder or farrier, a job caring for horses' feet.

And there's also a separate statewide GI Bill, where Minnesota veterans have an extra $10,000 available for education or training.

In his new job and two-year program, Hampshire feels like a new and energized man. He just finished replacing a clutch in a cement truck; before that, he was challenged with figuring out why a Mercedes engine inside a dump truck was making a weird noise.

If he hadn't been laid off due to COVID, he wouldn't have attempted a new career. And if he had had to take out a loan to pay for school, he wouldn't have gone for it.

"By the time I finish this program, I feel like I'll be a force to be reckoned with when it comes down to me vs. a broken-down truck," he said. "And even if I never got another raise, I'm just happier in what I do. It doesn't feel like I'm going to work. It's just a few guys working on engines."

Reid Forgrave • 612-673-4647