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December 11, 2017
Focus: HR / Recruitment

An army of workers: Maine employers tap into veteran talent pool

Photo / Tim Greenway
Photo / Tim Greenway
Joshua Broder, CEO of Tilson, in Tilson's new office space in Portland. Broder had his own 'incredibly immersive experience' in both technology and leadership as a U.S. Army Signal Corps officer.

Maine's veterans by the numbers

Total: 116,782

Female: 9,074

Male: 107, 708

Wartime veterans: 95,743

Gulf War: 34,341

Vietnam era: 44,581

Korean conflict: 10,853

World War II: 5,968

Peacetime: 21,039

Source: Bureau of Maine Veterans' Services

2017 Maine Hire-A-Vet Campaign heads towards strong finish

Well before the Dec. 13 finish date, the 2017 Maine Hire-A-Vet Campaign had already exceeded its target of getting 100 hires by 100 veterans in 100 days. Through Nov. 30, the tally was 152 hires by 148 employers, according to the Maine Department of Labor.

“The partnership between the Department of Labor and employers across the state has hit a new stride this year,” says Adria Horn, director of the Maine Bureau of Veterans' Services. “Our outreach has been better, but it's also been easier because the MHAV campaign is known – and known to be successful.”

She adds: “This is evidenced by employers who have joined us again for a second or third time.”

The 2017 campaign is due to wrap up on Dec. 13.

Top Hire-A-Vet employers in Maine, 2017

Lowe's Home Improvement: 31 hires

Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems: 16 hires

St. Mary's Regional Medical Center: 11 hires

Bonney Staffing Center: 9 hires

Dead River Co.: 8 hires

United Parcel Service: 4 hires

Source: Maine Department of Labor (figures as of Nov. 30)

Scarborough native Tim Smith joined the military right out of high school and now serves in the Army National Guard while managing a fleet of liquid-fuel delivery drivers for Dead River Co.

The 25-year-old has been with the company since starting as an intern in December 2015 while an ROTC student at the University of Southern Maine, where he majored in media studies. He's found his military training to be invaluable in his unexpected career, particularly in managing older, more experienced colleagues.

"In the military I'm a rifle platoon leader so I have 45 guys that I'm responsible for," including several older subordinates who have seen combat. "The biggest thing that's helped me is learning to work with them and operate as a team," he says during an interview at Dead River's South Portland headquarters. He overseas 25 drivers during the current busy season, including folks in their 50s and 60s who have been with the company or in the industry for years, pulling hoses sometimes through two feet of snow to keep someone's home warm.

"The most interesting thing to me," Smith says, "is the fact that in the wintertime, fuel and heat goes from being a commodity to a necessity, so we take our jobs very seriously in serving our customers."

Smith is one of more than 100 veterans and active reservists employed at Dead River, about 10% of the company's workforce. Other Maine employers with a large veteran workforce include Tilson, the fast-growing telecom and information technology firm based in Portland; Pittsfield-based Cianbro, Maine's largest construction firm; and Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems, which is based in Brewer.

Large veteran population

Photo / Tim Greenway
Photo / Tim Greenway
Guy Langevin, center, a veteran, is vice president of human resources and organizational development at Dead River Co. Here he meets with fellow employees and veterans, left to right, Tim Smith, delivery driver manager; Josh Stanclift, manager trainee intern; and Paula Kowalsky, credit manager, at Dead Riverís South Portland offices.

Maine has close to 117,000 veterans, who account for about 11% of the population. They're less likely to find and get jobs than others. Data from the Maine Department of Labor shows that in 2016, 51.3% of veterans were in the labor force, compared to 65.8% of non-vets. That's largely a reflection of the high percentage of older veterans who are outside the labor market. Within age groups, labor force participation rates of veterans and non-veterans are similar. The unemployment rate for both groups was below 4% in 2016.

For vets of working age, the good news is that more employers are recruiting from their ranks to staff jobs — in Maine and elsewhere — that they might otherwise have trouble filling. It's not just the technical and critical-thinking skills honed in the military they're seeking, but also the kind of dedication, team spirit and mission mindset that Guy Langevin looks for as Dead River's vice president of human resources and organizational development. A veteran himself, he joined the company eight years ago

"When I came here," he says, "we started focusing on identifying transferable skills from military backgrounds. There are inherent skill sets that are taught and trained — accountability, attention to detail, a focus on safety, adaptability to changing conditions … Those are incredibly valuable in the business world." He knows from experience, having worked as a cryptologic linguist and in military intelligence for five years in the U.S. Army.

In traditionally male-dominated industries such as construction and technology, gender equity among veterans has been hard — but not impossible — to achieve. That's been made more challenging because of the fact that veterans far outnumber their female peers — in Maine by a ratio of 12-to-1. Out of 104 veterans and active reserve members employed at Dead River, seven are female.

Among them is Paula Kowalsky, a Navy veteran who works as a credit manager who recalls being in boot camp with a lot of other women but often wonders where they have all gone. "I can't believe they're still all in the military," she says.

Tilson's hiring spree

At Tilson, growing demand for data and wireless communications infrastructure has spurred a nationwide expansion drive and hiring spree. It's now up to about 400 employees, about half of whom are veterans. Joshua Broder, the company's CEO and majority owner who comes from a military background himself, says veterans fit right in with the firm's hard-charging culture.

"We really want people who support their team and who want their peer group to be higher-performing because of their presence," Broder says. "That's where veterans come in for us."

Veterans are employed throughout the business, in the back office and other non-technical jobs, and in leadership roles. One of the employees is a cell-tower climber and one of only 10 female cell-tower climbers in the country; she's also a former U.S. Marine.

"The military is one of the few places in society where leadership training has been institutionalized and is regular," Broder notes. "You see it in the Fortune 500 companies, which tend to have formal leadership training, and you see it in the military. The difference is that in the Fortune 500 they identify a relatively small, elite group of up and comers to get their corporate leadership training. In the military, every military member from Day 1 is taught if there are three of them, for one person to take charge and delegate to the other two. That becomes an institutionalized process that's habituated over time and it's progressive."

Broder, 39, had his own "incredibly immersive experience" in both technology and leadership as a U.S. Army Signal Corps officer on missions in Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia, where he ran the tactical communications network in Afghanistan in support of U. S. and coalition forces, for which he received a Bronze Star. "A lot of the projects that Tilson does look like that unit in Afghanistan that I led building and deploying technology systems in difficult conditions," he says.

Grant Delaware, who served in the Marines and the Army National Guard, is also making use of the leadership skills he learned in the service as Dead River's manager of insurance and employee benefits. "One of the questions I had during my interview was 'How do you deal with situations where you don't have all the information but have to make a decision?' I was like, 'My gosh, that's been my entire military career … My background's not in insurance and employee benefits, but I've been allowed to grow and ask those questions."

Recruitment strategies

In the early days, Tilson hired veterans through personal connections. Now much bigger with greater hiring needs in a challenging environment, today it gets a hand from national organizations like Warriors4Wireless, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit that helps veterans find well-paying jobs in the wireless industry and gives them the needed training and certifications.

Kevin Kennedy, who spent more than three decades in the U.S. Air Force before taking the reins as president and CEO of Warriors4Wireless in February, says the organization has placed almost 1,200 veterans in five years and expects industry growth to keep the momentum going.

"We'd like to fill as many of those jobs with veterans as possible," he says.

In Maine, the nonprofit Boots2Roots also helps veterans find meaningful employment but is not a placement agency. "There are employers who want to hire veterans and companies that have apprehensions about it," says Executive Director Jen Fullmer, an Air Force veteran. "Either way, it usually comes down to whether the job applicant is qualified and does the company believe he or she has the skills to move their mission forward. If they do, it is important to articulate those skills and experiences in a way that resonate with the employer. We put a lot of focus in this area."

Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems, in its effort to hire more veterans, became the first Maine employer to join the U.S. Army's Partnership for Youth Success program. On a mission to "connect America with its Army," it guarantees newly enlisting soldiers and ROTC cadets a job interview and possible employment after they leave the military. EMHS also participates in the Maine Hire-A-Vet Campaign [see sidebar]. "EMHS is proud to employ more than 384 veterans across our system," says talent acquisition specialist Robin Doody. "Throughout their years of service, veterans learn skills that are valuable to any employer such as leadership, discipline, and the ability to work as a team."

Cianbro, which has hired 88 veterans in the past three years and today employs 131, prefers to do all its recruiting in-house though it sometimes works with outside staffing firms to fill certain positions. Destiny Demo, Cianbro's corporate operational human resources manager, says that veterans account for 13.9% of hires.

HR challenges

From a human resources perspective, veterans have some unique needs that other employees don't, like military services obligations that require them to take leave, sometimes at inopportune times, which tends not to be a problem.

Dan Means, a former machine gunner with the Marines, joined Tilson in Portland this September to work as a drafter and help Broder coordinate everything having to do with vets — from informing them about free flu shots to supporting their military commitments, above and beyond its pledge through a U.S. Department of Defense program, Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve.

"My door's always open," he says.

'Not a charity'

Mental wellness is another challenge, particularly for veterans who experienced trauma and have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

"For veterans, the trauma's easy to identify," sometimes even during a job interview, says Tilson's Broder, saying that wouldn't affect someone's chances of getting hired. "We see it as a back door into the conversation for everyone."

On the flip side, some employers may be put off by the stigma of PTSD.

Adria Horn, a U.S. Army veteran who heads the Maine Bureau of Veterans' Services, responds: "We want people to know that hiring a veteran isn't a charity and not all veterans have PTSD. And this isn't just a veteran issue — many employers already have civilian trauma survivors in the workforce."

She adds: "We want to move beyond an emphasis on trauma and really highlight that veterans are versatile, adaptable and highly accustomed to learning on the job, which is an immense asset to employers, especially in this tight job market."

Veterans interviewed for this story say there's always a bond that can make it easy to break the ice during a job interview or banter at work, even if they don't always see eye to eye on sports. "It gets a little competitive around the Army-Navy game," says Dead River's Langevin, laughing.

Read more

2017 Maine Hire-A-Vet Campaign well above target

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