During the next three to five years, Michigan is expected to see a return of at least 10,000 veterans to the state as operations cease in Afghanistan.
Their transition to civilian society is a key concern, however, including where and how they will find jobs.
The Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency and the West Michigan Veterans Coalition are working to advance opportunities for veterans to pursue education and training, as well as job opportunities, upon their return.
Jeff Barnes, director of the MVAA, said that strengthening relationships with Michigan colleges and universities is particularly important.
Goals include improving the admissions process for veterans, creating student veteran organizations on campus, and expanding counseling specific to veterans that focuses on benefits and service eligibility.
Barnes said that veterans often don’t know what benefits and services for which they are eligible, which means they don’t take advantage of those things that could enhance their opportunities.
“The Vietnam era veteran has had more than 50 changes in eligibility throughout the years and unless you really stay connected to the VA or observe what they do on a regular basis, it’s pretty easy to not know exactly what you are eligible for and how it applies to you.”
Conversations with colleges and universities have unearthed an issue the MVAA said it could help veterans address.
“One thing that we have learned in our discussion with universities is that when there’s an interruption in GI Bill benefits, that’s the peak time that a veteran will dis-enroll from school and then go take a job and not return to finish their degree or training,” he said.
“We have what is called the Michigan Veterans Trust Fund. It’s a $50 million fund at the state level that we spend off our interest each year and reinvest it in veterans who have had some kind of emergent episode — some un-forecasted expenses, and they need help.
“Out of that fund, we can help veterans meet that gap that has occurred by a disruption in their GI Bill benefits. … They can work through it with the U.S. VA and restore their payments without ever having to leave school.”
MVAA also wants to ensure that Michigan veterans are able to get in-state tuition at universities and colleges so they aren’t forced to make up the financial gap caused by out-of-state status.
Another issue is getting more veterans to take advantage of the GI Bill. Only about 5 percent of veterans use that benefit, he said.
“First of all, they’ve earned it,” Barnes said. “It’s a transition point in their career when they are leaving the military. Most people would approach a career transition with looking at getting some new skills and making a pivot in their career, and that provides a great opportunity to do that at no cost burden to the veteran. I strongly encourage vets to take advantage of it.”
One thing that might help more veterans return to school is credits for their military experience.
“That is an area where there is a lot of discussion and work left to do to help programs understand what skill sets they can take and apply toward that core curriculum, and that cuts down the time the veteran is actually going to be in school and allows them to return to the work force quicker,” Barnes said.
Translating military experience also is one of the key job barriers facing veterans and often leads to veterans being underemployed. MVAA is working with Pure Michigan Talent Connect to create a job search site that would help both veterans and employers translate military experience into more relatable job skills.
While someone who has served as an infantryman might not see a direct correlation with a career field, the website would help veterans translate their experience into skills that employers are looking for, such as leadership and strategy development.
“The ability to be a team leader may translate well into a lot of different career fields,” Barnes said. “What we want the veteran to be able to do is recognize how their skills will be able to pay forward into a new career.
“At the same time, we want to make it very easy for employers to be able to find veterans that are a good match for them.”
The website will help employers locate and reach out to veterans who fit their company’s needs. The idea is based on the existing Heroes for Hire program.
“We are going to use the software and repurpose it for the Pure Michigan Talent Connect,” Barnes said.
Barnes said employers who want to hire veterans should contact MVAA for assistance.
“We have an employment specialist who will work with businesses to take their veterans’ hiring activities and turn it into a veterans’ employment strategy, because it’s important for us to make sure that we have a good fit for the vet and a good fit for the employer.
“If you do it right, you can control for HR costs and reduce turnover and attrition, and the match is pretty consistent. We’ve got enough data to be able to help groups actually make that transition very well.
“If you don’t do it and you just hire a veteran, you get the wrong fit and you will have HR costs like you do with anyone that you hire that you don’t get a good fit, and then you go through a replacement and reposting period.”
The overall goal of MVAA is to be an umbrella organization that can help veterans connect with any services or benefits they are eligible for in the areas of education, employment, health care and quality of life.
“We estimate there to be about 450 local community organizations and 14 state government departments and agencies that do things for veterans,” Barnes said. “Most of that has been disconnected over the past years. The creation of the agency was designed around the intent of creating a central coordinating point for all things veteran across the state.
“This is going to be a game-changer for veterans.”