November 11, 2012

Incentives aim to get veterans hired

Emily Longhofer joined the Marine Corps two weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Emily Longhofer joined the Marine Corps two weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

After serving four years as a personnel administrator with the Marines, Longhofer decided to return to Wichita and civilian life.

She found a job fairly quickly doing administrative work. She said her employer told her after she started working that her military service was what got her hired. But the money she was making wasn’t as much as she’d made as a Marine.

“I was thinking I would get better pay,” she said.

So she decided to attend Wichita State University and earn a degree in industrial engineering. And though her military service paid for most of her six years of schooling, she had a young son to raise. That meant she had to work a part-time job, with no time left over for internships that might have led to a full-time engineering job when she graduated in May.

“It’s been a struggle to find a job, especially with no experience,” Longhofer said.

But a federal grant administered through the Kansas Department of Commerce – and her status as a veteran – helped Longhofer find an engineering job, which she started last week.

The Kansas Engineer Training grant that is paying for Longhofer’s training as a design engineer for Airbus contractor Assystems is one incentive available to employers who are considering hiring unemployed engineers who are veterans.

Officials said it is one of several incentives that aim to help veterans land jobs.

The hiring of veterans generally becomes a more visible issue every year around Nov. 11, which is Veterans Day. But one work force official said it’s going to become a hotter topic as the U.S. winds down its involvement in the war in Afghanistan.

“You’re going to have more returning vets,” said Keith Lawing, executive director of the Workforce Alliance of South Central Kansas.

Lawing said he was at a conference in Washington, D.C., last week and the big topic among his peers was a surge in veterans seeking jobs as they return from Afghanistan or separate from military forces that are downsizing.

The issue, Lawing said, is being able to connect those veterans’ skills with job skills needed among civilian employers. For instance, a returning combat medic may have many of the same skills as a civilian paramedic, but that veteran doesn’t have the credentials he or she would need to work as a paramedic.

“How can we, as a system of education and training, crosswalk those skills over to civilian skill sets?” Lawing said.

He said that’s an area under examination by work force, military and education officials, who are looking at ways to transfer military skills to civilian credentialing and certification.

“It’s not that employers don’t want to hire them … but it’s a matter of translating the skill sets and how do they match them up,” Lawing said. “I think that’s one of the challenges.”

Ron King, owner of staffing agency LSI Staffing, said being a veteran helps when applying for a job, but it’s not a free pass. Veterans have to have the skills needed by the employer.

“I think we have a natural appreciation for anybody that’s done that,” King said. “I think the individual skills and experience still has to be there.”

Steve Muleski, a retired Navy commander, said he was able to transfer some of his skills he learned in the Navy as a machinist mate and later as an officer in charge of the electric plant on a Navy ship to his 8-month-old job as a wind technician for GE Wind. He works at the Post Rock Wind Farm, 45 miles west of Salina.

Muleski, who said he holds several bachelor’s and master’s degrees, attended Cloud County Community College to earn an associate’s degree in wind energy technologies for his job with GE Wind.

“They did evaluate my Navy record and gave me quite a few credits actually,” said Muleski, who added that even at 51 years old, he enjoys climbing 300-foot-high wind turbines and working on them. “It’s good exercise and there’s not a better view that you can have in Kansas,” he said.

Tax credits available

Muleski said because he was a veteran “I got moved to the front of the line” when GE Wind was looking to hire wind technicians. “GE actually promotes the hiring of vets,” he said.

He said he didn’t know if GE received any incentives for hiring him, because he is a veteran.

Officials at the Kansas Department of Commerce said one incentive program employers can use is the Work Opportunity Tax Credit program.

The program provides employers with a federal income tax credit if they hire specific groups of workers. Unemployed veterans and long-term unemployed veterans are among the groups covered, said Joyce Heiman, the WOTC program manager for the commerce department. Heiman said the commerce department doesn’t issue the credits. The IRS does, she said. The commerce department certifies whether an employer has hired a qualified employee.

Heiman and David Brennan, director of employment services for the commerce department, said requests by employers for eligibility certificates have been growing, but they said they could not quantify that growth. “I think you could say there’s been a steady increase,” Brennan said.

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