GI go: Michigan’s Going PRO campaign connects veterans to high-tech, high-demand careers
In 2011, Kyle Jastren left a successful corporate career in metro Detroit to enlist with the U.S. Marine Corps.
He was 22, and he’d always felt a certain duty to serve his country. But it took a tragic event — his best friend’s death — for him to commit to making that life-changing decision.
“He and I had talked about joining up after high school, but that just didn’t happen for whatever reason,” Jastren said. “I never forgot about that, though, and when he passed away, I started to think about those conversations we’d had. I didn’t want to be in my 50s and say, ‘I wish I’d done it.’ So I just did it, and I’m still proud of that decision.”
A new direction
Jastren joined the infantry, but three years into active duty, he suffered an injury that ended his military career. In 2014, he found himself stationed in North Carolina without a clear direction forward.
“My degree had been in criminal justice, but I had also done some engineering work, and when I was in the Marines, I started to consider changing to a career in that field,” Jastren said. “But engineering companies aren’t looking for criminal justice degrees, and my injury prevented me from going back into criminal justice. I was really at a crossroads.”
So Jastren enrolled in a military separation training course that taught interviewing and resume-writing skills. He began to apply for jobs in Michigan and met with Livonia-based Roush Industries, an engineering and manufacturing company serving the alternative fuel, aerospace and defense vehicle markets. He landed a position that had an upwardly mobile career track.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d have an opportunity like this when I got out of the Marines,” Jastren said. “I know there are hundreds if not thousands of others like me out there. They don’t know about all the resources that are available to them.”
Help for Michigan vets
Every year, approximately 200,000 men and women leave the military to resume civilian life, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
In Michigan, support for returning veterans runs deep.
Chief among them is Veterans’ Employment Services, a program under the Workforce Development agency of the Talent and Economic Development (Ted) Department of Michigan, which provides multiple services tailored to former military personnel.
Its team offers resources and information for veterans who are unable to obtain employment through traditional means. At the same time, the program helps connect veterans with employers who are actively looking to hire these hometown heroes once their military service is complete.
Among Ted’s priorities is the new Going PRO campaign, which links qualified job seekers to occupations traditionally considered “skilled trades.” The aim of Going PRO is to promote training and exploration in a range of careers in emerging high-demand, high-tech industries such as cybersecurity and advanced manufacturing, spurring Michigan’s creation of the all-encompassing term “Professional Trades.”
“Many Michigan employers in the Professional Trades industries are facing or are about to face a major workforce shortfall,” said Stephanie Beckhorn, Ted’s acting director. “Military veterans represent a promising solution to that problem. These are highly skilled, team-based individuals who just need a little help to connect them with a position that best suits them.”
Projections show Michigan experiencing a Professional Trades workforce gap of more than 811,000 openings by 2024 due to retiring baby boomers and the emergence of new technologies. Veterans can help fill that void. According to a 2018 report from the Michigan Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives:
- Michigan’s veteran population was 552,400 in 2017, making for an effective built-in workforce.
- The 2017 unemployment rate for veterans in Michigan was 3.6%, compared with the nonveteran unemployment rate of 4.6%.
- In 2017, manufacturing employed the most veterans in Michigan, at 25%, followed by trade, transportation and utilities (21%); professional and business services (10%); healthcare and social assistance (9%); and construction (7%).
Michigan’s success at coordinating veterans’ search for Professional Trades careers earns praise from prospective candidates and employers alike.
“Ted is taking a proactive approach to bridging this talent gap with innovative solutions so Michigan can compete for 21st-century careers,” Beckhorn said. “We’re driving veterans, students and other job seekers to build and refine their skills that ultimately lead them to a successful pathway in high-demand, high-wage careers.”
Solving ‘a problem for everyone’
“Helping veterans is something that’s important to us,” said Tom Nichols, executive vice president of Prestige Group, an engineering, manufacturing and staffing company with offices in Madison Heights, Clinton Township and Warren. “If we don’t take care of someone when they come home after serving, then people may stop going. And that will become a problem for everyone.”
Nichols, a veteran himself, spearheaded a company initiative to fast-track veterans into engineering careers while they’re enrolled in classes to get their degrees. The benefits are “immediate and measurable,” he said.
“There are veterans who have difficulty assimilating back into society after their service, so they’re stuck making $10 to $14 per hour with little chance for advancement,” Nichols said. “They can’t look for other work because these jobs keep them busy full time. They need a break, and trying to fit college into a schedule like that is impossible because they only have so much time.”
The GI Bill pays for veterans’ college costs, so Prestige asks them to pursue a degree.
“A lot of engineering is following a set of protocols and adhering to detail, which most military people have an aptitude for,” Nichols said. “At Prestige, we identified engineering positions with some of our clients that these individuals could fill, with the commitment from them that they’d follow through on their education. We’ve been able to connect hundreds of people with jobs.”
Many highly skilled veterans face unique stereotypes that challenge even the most open-minded employers, said Michael Poyma, a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs employment specialist.
“Being able to understand and effectively translate the transferable skills from a military job to a civilian job is difficult,” Poyma said. “There are a lot of nuances to experience that are hard to convey, a lot of acronyms that (most) employers aren’t familiar with. About 90% of occupational specialties have a civilian equivalent. Unfortunately, it’s challenging to line those skills up.”
Poyma also works to bridge what he calls a “military-civilian cultural divide” through INVESTVets, a community-based veteran employment organization with locations in Jackson, Lansing and Ypsilanti. INVESTVets modifies the conventional job fair mode that, instead of simply putting potential employees and employers in a room together, focuses on forging connections and dispelling misconceptions about veterans.
“Military people are generally pretty driven, but I hear from employers who say they feel threatened by that drive,” he said. “Or they think every veteran has been to war and has PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], and they just don’t want to deal with that. Obviously not all veterans have seen combat, but everyone does better in a stable environment, and that starts with having a meaningful job.”
That’s true for Jastren, who said the benefits go far beyond his actual job.
As a general manager at Roush Manufacturing, he oversees the entire manufacturing business unit — representing a team of more than 270 people and approximately $60 million in materials and equipment — to ensure key deliverables are met. The projects he’s worked on include Google’s self-driving car, the Domino’s DXP vehicle and the Polaris Dagor, an ultralight tactical vehicle that looks like a slimmed-down Humvee.
“I have friends that are still serving. From time to time they send me photos next to the vehicles we make here at Roush,” Jastren said. “That’s meaningful to me in a way I can’t put into words. It’s just a very deep personal reward to knowing that I’m still doing my part and I’m helping them.”
Serving those who served
The Prestige Group and Roush Industries were named Gold-Level Employers in 2018 by the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency, which also works to reduce unemployment and underemployment among Michigan National Guard and Reserve members.
The Gold recognition reflects the employers’ commitment to hiring a specific number of veterans, implementing veteran-friendly training programs and retaining at least 75% of those veterans over a 12-month period.
“It’s poignant when you see the impact you make on the life of someone who put their life on the line for their country,” Nichols said. “When you see someone who’s done three tours [of duty], came home, landed a job and made their first house payment — that’s powerful stuff.”
Still, Nichols said sometimes companies who use Prestige’s staffing company need convincing. When that happens, he has a perfect reply.
“I ask them, ‘When’s the last time you pulled someone out of a burning building?’” Nichols said.
“By hiring a veteran, that’s basically what you’re doing as an employer. This veteran gave their service to you, and when they came home, maybe they didn’t get the reception they thought they’d get. They didn’t have a job waiting for them, and they were expected to find one and start working right away. They served you — this is your chance to serve them.”
Michigan campaign connects veterans to high-tech, high-demand careers. Visit Going PRO for more information.
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