Veteran Explorers Program expands beyond health care

A training and career development program for veterans has expanded this year to include opportunities in Kent, Ottawa and Montcalm counties through collaborative employer partnerships.

Spectrum Health announced April 27 a collaborative partnership with Michigan Works!, Haworth and Gordon Food Service to expand its Veteran Explorers Program to provide opportunities for unemployed and underemployed veterans to acquire job skills through paid internships beyond the field of health care.

Launched in 2013, the Veteran Explorers Program was designed to help veterans bridge the employment gap between military experience and offer support as they transition into the corporate or private sector. The program consists of three 10-week department rotations for eligible veterans to learn job skills in a variety of settings. As a paid internship, enrollees receive $11 an hour and participate in a minimum of 20 hours of work each week.

The program also includes workshops, networking and mentoring opportunities, certification preparation courses, weekly progress updates, career coaching meetings, and post-hire or job coaching support.

Kristin Ekkens, manager of inclusion and diversity at Spectrum Health, said the organization wants to create employment opportunities for unemployed and underemployed veterans.

“This is an incredibly important thing for us, for recruiting and retaining top talent in the area, and to be able to serve and help veterans bridge that employment gap between the military service that they have and really transition into that corporate sector. It is something that we want to do and we are honored to do,” said Ekkens.

“It was so successful in this last year, we decided we wanted to partner with Michigan Works! and with other employers in the area who have the same commitment and want to work with veterans in the community,” she added.

Since launching the program, Spectrum Health has hired 17 of 22 veterans immediately upon completion of the program, according to a press release. The current employed veterans serve in a number of employment opportunities: facilities project leader, payer relations manager, application developer analyst, recruiter, transportation coordination, and management and support roles.

“Our role has become working with other companies, working with Michigan Works! and saying, ‘Let’s build this collaboration and bring it to a stronger level,’” said Ekkens. “We really are a strategic partner to help this be a successful initiative for other employers, as well as an employer partner at the same time by offering this program throughout our organization.”

For 2015, Michigan Works! will provide general management of the program while Spectrum Health maintains a strategic oversight as it continues to offer training and career development opportunities along with new employer partners Gordon Food Service and Haworth.

Amy Lebednick, business services assistant manager for Michigan Works!, said the statewide workforce organization will provide general program management and also will hold career development workshops for both enrolled veterans and those who were not selected to participate.

Workshops include topics on developing interview skills, creating resumes, personal branding and community resources, according to Lebednick.

Ann Harten, vice president of global human resources for Haworth, said military veterans represent a highly skilled talent pool that is currently under-utilized in West Michigan and throughout the country.

“This program provides an opportunity to leverage their considerable skills in a corporate environment and explore opportunities that can put them on an exciting civilian career path,” said Harten. “We are proud to offer this program to men and women who have served our country and hope to help with career transitions.”

The Michigan Department of Technology, Management & Budget, Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives released “Michigan Veterans: A Workforce Study” in September 2013, indicating the veteran population in the state is approximately 634,000 and represents roughly 8.8 percent of the state’s total adult population. Veteran labor force participation as of 2012 was at 44.3 percent, while the nonveteran labor force participation rate was at 63.4 percent.

While the unemployment rate for Michigan veterans was 7.9 percent in 2012, which was a decrease from 11.2 percent unemployment in 2011, the workforce study indicated veteran and nonveteran joblessness is higher in Michigan than nationally.

Applications are closed for this cycle, which will launch mid-June and run for 30 weeks before a cohort celebration in January, according to Ekkens.

To participate in the Veteran Explorers Program, U.S. veterans in the community must have served at least 180 active duty days in the military with honorable discharge, be able to provide a copy of their DD214, be currently unemployed or underemployed, and be willing to work 20 hours each week, according to the press release. Other prerequisites include 20 hours in general employability skills training, and complete Work Keys, basic skills and behavior/interest assessments.

Tony Groll, president of U.S. distribution for Gordon Food Service, said the Veteran Explorers Program is an opportunity for the company to both partner with the community and meet a business need.

“We think this program will better prepare us to partner with veteran organizations throughout our U.S. geography,” said Groll.

With the expanded employer partner network, veterans have an opportunity to work rotations in Kent County at Gordon Food Service or Spectrum Health, in Ottawa County at Haworth or Spectrum Health Zeeland Community Hospital, or in Montcalm County at Spectrum Health United Hospital.

“We are looking for about 25 veterans within Spectrum Health, but as a collaboration — and this is one of the reasons we expanded: so we can serve more individuals — now the cohort is looking for about 40 veterans to participate in the initiative across Haworth, Gordon Food Service and Spectrum Health,” said Ekkens.

Departmental opportunities include positions such as developer analyst, recruiter, facilities project leader, basic and skilled machine operation, new product introduction, event planning, human resources, logistics and supply chain, marketing, patient transport, information services and customer service.

“It is allowing veterans to have experience in other industries aside from health care, and it has also opened doors for more collaboration. It is an opportunity for more veterans to be placed in the program and more success stories to come out of that, as well,” said Lebednick in reference to the 2015 expansion.

“Michigan Works! has a goal and mission to assist veterans, so this is a natural fit to expand the program beyond Spectrum Health and work with some of our premier employers in the community. We are excited to be a part of the program.”

Ekkens said the program is more than a hiring initiative.

“For me, it has been powerful to see the work they are able to bring to Spectrum, the commitment and how they are able to help make a more inclusive workplace here,” she said.

“It shows our commitment to our veterans in our community, but I think they are teaching us and our employees here at Spectrum Health so much more at the same time.”

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