RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Thousands of Minnesota National Guard deployed in the Middle East woke up to a surprise last spring. Just weeks before the end of their tour, a group of corporate recruiters showed up on base. The first-of-its kind visit was part of a new strategy to help returning service members find civilian jobs - even before they get back on U.S. soil.
Jess Mador of Minnesota Public Radio reports.
JESS MADOR, BYLINE: Studies show unemployment for returning soldiers can play a role in a host of problems - like drug and alcohol abuse, family conflict, even suicide. And finding work after a tour of duty is especially tough for Guard and Reserve troops, who split their time between overseas deployments and civilian lives. It's often difficult to translate military experience to civilian skills. And employers, who don't know how long veterans will be around, may hesitate to hire them.
Minnesota National Guard Capt. Ron Jarvi says that affects troops at all levels.
CAPTAIN RON JARVI: Anywhere from the young soldier who just graduated from high school and came back from basic training and deployed right away to the more seasoned soldier that has had civilian work experience.
MADOR: So, Minnesota National Guard leaders decided to do something unusual - prepare troops for civilian jobs while they're still in Kuwait, helping with the U.S. drawdown from Iraq.
More than a quarter of these 2,700 troops had no civilian jobs waiting for them at home. To help them, the Guard flew a specialized team from government, education and business to their military base for a week of intensive work - things like resume writing, career planning and even mock interviews.
Best Buy recruiter Bruce Kiefner went on the trip. He says hiring more veterans is a priority for Best Buy. He went to Kuwait to help them improve their chances of being hired.
BRUCE KIEFNER: They have that get-the-job-done attitude, and that's what has, you know, really attracts us to them; that they are, you know, serious yet they have a personal side and that is where we like to kind of, you know, bridge that gap. We want the serious leader but we also want someone that can, you know, take a breath and have fun with the team. And those are typically our best leaders.
MADOR: The effort to help them intensified when troops got home. Experts worked one-on-one with every soldier. The guard says the effort has paid off. Of the more than 500 service members who needed jobs, officials say only about 35 are still looking for work.
The guard's Jarvi says the program was successful because it helped troops before they got overwhelmed with coming home.
JARVI: The reality is is that you're trying to reintegrate with your spouse or with your kids or with getting your paperwork filed with the state and reinstating your license and then doing all of the different things that you have to do to reintegrate.
MADOR: Captain Jeff Pratt knows how overwhelming homecoming can be. The 46-year old served two tours of duty in Iraq in the last 10 years. Despite his decades of civilian work experience, even he had difficulties landing the job he wanted. After getting help from the jobs initiative, he finally found the right position. He started last week as a risk-management analyst with Minnesota-based United Health Group.
CAPTAIN JEFF PRATT: When you don't have a job or you're looking for a job, hundreds of websites you can go on. But if you don't know what you're looking for, you're spraying and praying, it never works out very well. What this program is, it's designed to channel you into one spot and work that one spot and by doing that your propensity of finding what you're looking for dramatically goes up, and it just, it works.
MADOR: Yet, as in many states, unemployment for military veterans remains a persistent problem. Minnesota National Guard officials are now expanding their jobs effort statewide. And they're helping other units across the country set up their own programs to help veterans get civilian jobs after they hang up their uniforms.
For NPR News, I'm Jess Mador.
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