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Minnesota National Guard
Veterans fill ranks of Minnesota's unemployed

Article by: MARK BRUNSWICK , Star Tribune
Updated: September 21, 2011 - 11:25 AM

Officials see the struggles but can't explain why the state has one of the highest jobless rates in the country for vets since 2001

After combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan with hundreds of men under his command, Army Capt Andrew McLean longed to return to his native Minnesota, bolstered by job prospects in a state where unemployment was well below the national average

Little did he know he was part of a daunting subset in the state's job market: More than one in five modern-day veterans cannot find work At almost 23 percent, Minnesota's unemployment rate for veterans who have served after the Sept 11 attacks is the country's third-highest Only Michigan and Indiana are worse The state's rate is nearly twice the national average of 115 percent and more than three times the state's overall unemployment rate

"You run into sergeant majors and lieutenant colonels who did 26 years in the military and have college educations, but yet you see them at a job fair looking for work," said Jeff Holmstrom, a 33-year-old staff sergeant in the Minnesota National Guard who spent months job hunting after returning more than a year ago from his second deployment He had volunteered for that tour in Kuwait because he couldn't find work "That's how bad it is out there"

President Obama has made putting veterans to work a cornerstone of his recently announced jobs plan Obama has proposed tax credits of up to $4,800 for employers who hire vets and up to $9,600 for hiring a wounded vet

There are an estimated 23,000 post-Sept 11 veterans in Minnesota, with 5,000 of those unemployed in 2010, according to the most recent data from the US Congress Joint Economic Committee Veterans of all ages in Minnesota had a jobless rate of 94 percent, compared with 87 percent for veterans in the United States

Minnesota officials are at a loss to explain the disparity for recent vets

Part of the problem may be the state's lack of an active military base Recent vets largely were National Guard and Reserve soldiers

Michael Hicks, an associate professor of economics at Ball State University who has studied the issue, said a significant factor could be the composition of the Guard units Minnesota and Indiana, for instance, both have infantry divisions made up of younger soldiers, rather than logistical units, which typically include older soldiers

"Younger workers tend to be unemployed at a higher rate than older workers," said Hicks, who also is a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve

Since 2001, more than 19,000 members of the Minnesota Guard have been deployed Although it's illegal to ask, employers may be reluctant to hire Guard members likely to be deployed again And Guard members returning from lengthy deployments may not immediately jump back into the workforce

"Texas places more veterans [into jobs] than any state in the nation," said James Finley, director of veterans employment programs for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development "If you are not married to a vet, the child of a vet or the parent of a vet, you live next to one Everybody knows the value veterans bring down there"

Unlike a generation of Americans who returned home from World War II to a country flush with optimism and opportunity, the 5 million veterans in the days since Sept 11 face a more insular and divided country

"After a decade of war, we've gotten into the routine of thinking that thanking a soldier in an airport" is fulfilling our obligation as Americans, said Mike Haynie, executive director of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University and an Air Force veteran "If we truly embraced our citizenship responsibility, from small business to Fortune 500 companies, there is some level of obligation that we should assume to this generation of veterans as they return home"

'Modeled after industry'

Explanations for the numbers have brought little solace to McLean, who is 28 Before returning to Minnesota earlier this year after seven years in the service, McLean was a signal company commander in Afghanistan and was a communications officer for a battalion in Iraq

In Afghanistan, he was in command of over 230 soldiers and contractors and oversaw more than $50 million in facilities that ranged from life support to guidance systems, all with his closest supervisor 200 miles away in Kabul

In his job hunt, area companies have been well-meaning but unaccustomed to dealing with a job applicant with his unique experience, which includes a top secret clearance

"People think the military is much the same way it was in Vietnam or World War II where it's a simple organization that just shoots, moves and communicates," McLean said "These days it's much more modeled after industry"

McLean, who has been offered jobs in St Louis and New Jersey as well as a six-figure contracting job in Afghanistan, now spends about half his day monitoring websites for job prospects

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