One veteran’s search for a career
DCTC offers special entrepreneurial program
Editor’s Note: This is one story of a three-part series on veterans coming home to try to find jobs and the challenges they face doing so. The other two stories center on another veteran and his family and on a special employment resource team going to Kuwait.
In the three months he has been unemployed, Lt. Col. Bruce Jensen, 44, of Lakeville, has sent out more than 50 applications, has had five phone interviews and has been invited for two in-person interviews.
Jensen has been in the military for 20 years, half of that on active duty. He returned to the United States in November 2010 from a tour in Iraq to find a fork in the road: Stay in active duty and be sent to North Carolina or transition to civilian life and be a part of his young daughters’ lives on a daily basis. He chose the latter. It took another year to transition from active duty to the National Guard.
“That was a family decision,” he said. “They need their father in their lives.”
Unemployment has been frustrating, Jensen said, but he is “not ready to throw in the towel just yet.”
The unemployment rate for veterans who served post-9/11 was 12.1 percent in 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. A survey by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America of 4,000 military members puts the rate closer to 17 percent.
Add to that the lifestyle transition from a constantly stressful combat situation to the vastly different world of civilian life, and the challenges veterans like Jensen face are daunting.
Right now he could technically be qualified as “very underemployed,” because he works one weekend a month with the National Guard at Camp Ripley as a comptroller for the U.S. Property and Finance Office. But that is not enough on which to raise two daughters, ages 10 and 13.
“Looking for a job is kind of like sales,” he said. “You need to fill your funnel full of names. Also, ask for help. So many people are oriented toward helping vets.”
Jensen’s active duty military experience involved overseeing a staff of about eight people at the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command in Baghdad. His team issued regular briefings to Gen. Raymond Odierno, commanding general of the U.S. Iraq War efforts.
Outside of his military experience, Jensen has an accounting degree from St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., is a certified public accountant and has about 10 years of experience in sales and accounting he earned while serving as a reservist prior to 2002, when he went into active duty. The Army paid well, he said.
Nowadays, Jensen tries to seek out and apply for at least one job a day, or book an informational interview or networking meeting each day.
“I’m trying to maintain a positive attitude,” Jensen said, conceding that a constant upbeat attitude is impossible. “You just have to keep that ‘warrior ethos’ – like we like to call it in the military – and keep plugging away.”
To get job interviews, Jensen has relied heavily on personal contacts, “rather than sending an application into the abyss.”
“It’s about getting your story out there,” Jensen said. “That is so important.”
He still recommends applying for jobs online if that is required. But working those contacts is key.
“A person could literally lock themselves up for 40 hours a week on their computer, sending applications out until they are blue in the face,” he said.
Jensen has found in his job searches that companies often use software to detect buzzwords in applicants’ resumes. This makes it hard for someone like Jensen, with nuanced experiences, to articulate them on paper.
His resume in the federal system is 12 pages long, he said. That format allows for a more complete picture of his job history, but it doesn’t translate to the civilian sector.
“It has got all my certifications, awards, courses. … It goes into the ‘nth’ detail about what I did for different jobs,” he said. “I wish I could use my government resume for civilian jobs.”
Which is why personal connections are so valuable.
“Utilize the local unemployment center vet rep,” he said. “Network with people you know … friends that perhaps you won’t get a job from, but might know people.”
Local organizations that can help in Lakeville include churches and Beyond the Yellow Ribbon.
Jensen also recommends veterans try LinkedIn, the professional social media site that can connect job-seekers with job-providers.
Jensen seeks help from resources such as the veterans services of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development and his community at Trinity Evangelical Free Church in Lakeville.
Back to school
But for veterans who do not have Jensen’s credentials and are looking to go back to school, Dakota County Technical College might have a solution.
In August it debuts its web-centric Yellow Ribbon Entrepreneurs Initiative, a veterans-oriented offshoot of DCTC’s existing entrepreneurial program.
Program instructor Christine Pigsley said the inspiration for it came from her experience as DCTC dean of students.
“I was seeing veterans coming back to college and having a hard time fitting into the mainstream college system,” she said. “They were often missing class because of issues such as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) or the needs of their family as part of the reintegration process.”
Jobs were an issue, too. It is illegal for an employer to not save a space for a vet’s return to his or her old job, but the exact job description does not have to be the same.
“Self-employment seemed like a natural fit,” Pigsley said. “They could use the military experience and skills they had gained to create a new job for themselves with more flexibility than in a traditional 8-to-5 job.”
Veterans are in an especially good position to return to college and study in fields such as entrepreneurship. As part of the GI Bill, the federal government covers most of a veteran’s tuition and materials, Pigsley said. To top it off, she said, veterans can still qualify for financial aid.
Pigsley and DCTC staff members surveyed veterans who were currently attending the school.
“Flexibility was the key,” she said.
In this case, flexibility meant making the program Internet-oriented, she said, “so students could go to school at the time when they were most effective; some during the night and others during the day. If a student has a bad day, they can do their school work on the next day.”
Family was also key. DCTC sees the program as a family affair centered around a veterans-only cohort. This allows for them to support each other as they progress through the program.
There is also the opportunity through Credit from Prior Learning, which Pigsley said awards veterans college credit for past post-secondary coursework and military experience and training.
To achieve its goal of a 30-student cohort, DCTC is taking advantage of the online component to “branch out nationally, even internationally … if we had a cohort group that was going to deploy and we had soldiers interested in taking online courses together while deployed,” Pigsley said. “It really makes our program globally applicable and, we believe, unique.”
For more information on the program, check out DCTC.
Jensen maintains perspective
Meanwhile, Jensen tries to maintain some perspective in his job search. He said he realizes that with a large number of veterans and nonveterans seeking jobs, it is a “classic supply and demand issue.”
Jensen has informational interviews coming up, and by sticking with his networking methods and warrior ethos, he is optimistic that he will soon find an accounting/operations job.
In the midst of active duty in Baghdad, Jensen took that time to contemplate what he really wanted out of life when he returned to Lakeville. The single father finds himself coaching his daughter’s track team and passing the time with both his children as much as he can.
“I want to be able to have a day job and spend time in the evenings with my family,” he said. “The American Dream is really ‘it.’ ”
Aaron Vehling can be reached at email@example.com or facebook.com/sunthisweek.