Lisa Katz| Crain’s Detroit Blog

With so many meetings on my calendar, sometimes I feel like I am moving about like a chicken with its head cut off. This week, though, I was able to pause and reflect — and even be inspired a bit — thanks to my participation in the 2013 Governor’s Summit on Veterans Talent, convened in partnership between the Detroit Regional Chamber and Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency.

The highlight was a presentation from Medal of Honor recipient Sal Giunta. Sal talked wryly of his time as a high school student and “sandwich artist” at Subway. He was drawn to the military because he possessed a lot of natural energy that made it hard for him to sit still and listen in a classroom and, following 9/11, he wanted to make a difference. He decided to become an Army airborne infantryman.

In 2007, during a second tour in Afghanistan, Sal and his team, while trying to recover essential equipment that had been stolen during a scouting attack, were caught in a gun battle with Taliban soldiers. One of his teammates was shot, and the enemy began dragging the injured soldier, one of Sal’s dear friends, away. Sal took chase, injured himself, overtaking the enemy, recovering his fatally injured buddy, getting the friend to medical support and returning to his team.

Sal downplays his receipt of the nation’s highest military honor, noting he was just doing his job, his efforts merely a brushstroke in the overall painting of that day. He pointed out that after he recovered his friend, his team continued on its mission to find the stolen equipment. They did not stop because they had a bad day; they continued the mission because that was what they were trained to do.

Despite the incredible skills veterans possess, many employers struggle with how to go about hiring them. Michigan ranks No. 11 in the number of veteran residents, but the unemployment rate among this population is among the highest in the nation. Further, the state ranks last in the number taking advantage of benefits offered through the GI Bill, including tuition payments for training and education.

When it comes to hiring veterans, there are challenges. For example, employers and workers struggle to translate military skills into civilian skills, or the military skills are not valued in a civilian setting. Sometimes soldiers do not have their college degrees, like Sal, opting for a different pathway that gained them invaluable experience. Many suffer from emotional and physical challenges accumulated during their deployments.

Fortunately, there are many resources that can help overcome these barriers. For example, Quicken Loans is working directly with veterans to help them gain private-sector experience through paid internships. There are resources and support on hand to help the workers address some of the physical and emotional challenges they may face following deployment.

The president of Grand Valley State University announced that the university had recently joined all 14 other public four-year institutions in offering in-state tuition to veterans. Many of these institutions have developed special programs to help veterans articulate their skills and bond and connect with one another on campus, understanding that their experiences are so very different from their other college peers.

The president of Lansing Community College talked about being designated a “military friendly” community college and how it was able to achieve the largest veterans enrollment in the state. The school has several programs in place that help veterans earn civilian credentials, like nursing and paramedic, that help them get on the job in a fraction of the time.

An executive for GE Transportation shared the tool Get Skills to Work, which is helping veterans communicate their manufacturing skills into civilian skills — an area of high need here in Southeast Michigan.

Jeff Barnes, director for the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency, noted that there also are many incentives for hiring veterans, including five years of free health care to treat illnesses and provide wellness checks, hiring and training tax credits with value up to several thousand dollars and even federal relocation allowances that pay for soldiers’ last move upon conclusion of service. He pointed out that this latter benefit means Michigan employers should reach nationally to bring veterans into the state to work.

Many of the employer panelists underscored the reality that most people can learn a skill or trade, but it can take decades to learn resilience and leadership characteristics that are ingrained in our soldiers from the very beginning of their careers. Sal Giunta made it clear that the military is full of soldiers just like him and who would do exactly what he did in similar circumstances. In fact, joining him on stage that day were several veterans right in here in Michigan ready for work, with skills including communications, nursing and astrophysics.

If an employer is looking for a worker who can overcome challenges, can take directions but face the unknown and lead a team through, noted Sal, they should hire a soldier.

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