Written by Mission Next Consulting
Each state has organizations that are designed to support veterans, particularly during their transition to civilian life. The Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency (MVAA) works to identify and break down barriers veterans face in employment, education, health care and quality of life to encourage veterans to make Michigan their home. The agency connects veterans and their families to federal and state resources, while working with hundreds of community-based veteran programs to help make the transition as smooth as possible. The Mission Next consultants had the opportunity to sit down with Zaneta Adams who is the Director at MVAA to talk about the challenges that veterans face and how her organization can help.
Let's start by having you tell us a bit about your background and providing an overview of what the MVAA does.
"I just celebrated my third anniversary as the Director of the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency. I am a cabinet appointed advisor to the governor on veterans affairs, and work for the Adjutant General of the Michigan National Guard as well as the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. Our role is to make sure that we are breaking down barriers to health care, employment, education and quality of life. I know that's a mouthful, but we really do have a huge job. Michigan has the 11th largest veteran population in the country, with over 567,000 veterans living in the state.
Another part of our role is educating the community, including Michigan employers. Our agency has a Veteran-Friendly Employer program as well as a Veteran-Friendly Schools program. You mentioned how high the turnover is during the first 24 months when veterans enter the civilian workforce. I found that interesting because one of the things that HR representatives should consider is how the military culture creates employees who are used to changing bases every two to three years. So if you're at a job for two to three years, you get the itch that it's time to move on. We want to encourage employers to look at these individuals with prior military service and determine how can they move them within that 2-to-3-year span – maybe it's a different role, or doing something new with their skills, or maybe just a different atmosphere. Looking at veterans as a unique population can really help retain those veterans who have that itch to move.
The Veteran-Friendly Employer programs we have here in Michigan have proved to be invaluable by educating HR representatives, the staff and the CEOs on the importance of hiring veterans and how to keep them. We've also been able to teach employers how to create veteran-centered work groups to build team camaraderie. Plus, we can work with employers to set policies that are veteran-friendly to make sure, for example, that they're allowing for additional days to go to VA appointments or other veteran-specific activities. It's really easy to get on board with these ideas and our model is designed to help employers become truly veteran-friendly to help both hire and retain these high-quality former service members."
How many veterans do you bring into the state of Michigan every year?
"We just started receiving the DoD Information from those who've checked the box that they want to receive transitioning services so I'm not sure we have a full year of good data under our belt yet. However, our own metrics say that we are averaging about 300 to 320 service members transitioning to Michigan on a monthly basis. It's really amazing how many transitioning service members are out there. We actually just had a first former Space Force service member transition to Michigan. Again, the volume of transitioning service members presents a real opportunity to Michigan employers who are interested in hiring these highly skilled, trained and motivated workers."
Tell us more about being an official "veteran-friendly" employer in Michigan. What does that look like from the perspective of the MVAA?
"The MVAA has bronze, silver, and gold designation levels for Veteran-Friendly Employers – and one builds upon the other. For example, to be a gold level, you have to have been a silver level for at least a year. There are specific metrics that we look at for each level too. For instance, the employer sets a goal on how many veterans they're going to hire and moving up to the next level shows how many you retain over the last year. All of that is part of the application process. There's also criteria based on the employer's commitment to what they provide for veterans. Do you have a dedicated person who is culturally competent and can speak the military language to work with veterans during the employment process? Do you offer special leave days for veterans to go to their VA appointments? What benefits do you have for military spouses like a spouse hiring and retention program? Those are some of the parameters the MVAA examines, and they don't have to meet all of them, but they have to meet a certain number of them to be at each level. And most importantly, to move to the next level, the employer has to demonstrate retention of their veteran population."
You mentioned the importance of understanding military culture and language if an organization wants to recruit and retain veterans. How does the MVAA assist employers in creating a culturally competent HR and leadership team?
"We offer some basic courses in military speak just so people can start to learn, for example, the difference between a private and a major – or to understand the officer track and the skills that come with that. We actually do those sessions within our own state department to educate the civil service on these topics. We want them to understand that a former service member may not be showing exact job experience in your area, but they've been out there managing staff and military operations in a very big way. Those skills will lead to that former service member doing very well in the job for which the department is recruiting.
We do training modules to help veterans fit into to the civilian culture. For example, we know that veterans are going to use a lot of acronyms and they'll have to adjust the way they speak to fit into the civilian workforce. Former service members also crave a team atmosphere, so we help employers focus on building a team for their veterans and broadly creating these team atmospheres in their organization. Civilian companies don't necessarily think that way when they are just hiring people to work on an assembly line, but it's really important if you want to recruit and retain veterans.
I hear what you're saying about the culture shock that veterans may experience when they enter the civilian workforce. I've experienced this myself. When someone needs something done, I just want to get it done. I don't always understand why others might wait a week or so to execute on something. That's not the way it's done in the military so it can be really frustrating for former service members. The MVAA is always trying to help Michigan employers understand these cultural differences so their workplaces can truly accept and engage veterans."
What do you think is the biggest transition issue that veterans are facing when they're coming in to Michigan?
"I guess it's hard to pick one thing but my general thought is that transitioning service members, as they are coming out of the military, go through TAPs, but it's just not enough. I'm very concerned about transitioning service members and how their overall mental health and well-being are affected by the transition. The military does a really great job in training our soldiers and airmen, including teaching them how to be military. The training reroutes the brain and the thinking process, but we never reset it back.
So when these individuals come out, they often leave places like a base where they are side-by-side with people that are like minded and share similar experiences, and then they move into a community where they don't even talk to their neighbors. To me, communities are not the same as they were a long time ago, where people came outside and talked to each other more frequently. It's just not that way anymore. On top of that, our veterans go from having work that is regimented and has a meaningful purpose, to a job that maybe doesn't have that purpose. I think that's the bigger picture and it's probably the most challenging part of the transition.
If we are really going to help veterans find sustained employment, we have tackle some of these other issues. How do we welcome a veteran into our community, particularly where there aren't naturally connected communities? I think it's up to an employer to provide some of this community connection and also help veterans access the other resources are available. There are many places to find a community that works for your interests - and I'm not just talking about the American Legions, DAVs, or the VFW. I'm talking about other organizations where people are finding purpose. If employers can help veterans get connected to those organizations, then the veterans can find their new communities, and their new purpose, and they will be more likely to stay with the civilian organization that made that happen."
One of the findings from the doctoral dissertation was that service members who worked in organizations that had veterans affinity groups stayed a lot longer. Have you seen any evidence of that in the work that the MVAA does?
"Veterans affinity groups are certainly one of those things that we push. We haven't been able to formally study whether the groups help veterans stay longer but we do know that our silver and gold level employers all have veterans affinity groups. So by connection, since you can't move to that level unless they have a strong retention rates, it leads me to believe that those veteran affinity groups are helping keep veterans longer. It just seems that there's a correlation.
It's really amazing to watch those affinity groups work. I often say that veterans trust other veterans, so when you are talking about company issues – like policies or culture – you know that those are veterans sitting in that room with you. That creates an automatic trust. It's so much easier to talk about your personal frustrations or other issues that might be going on at work, or even at home. In the end, veterans affinity groups are just another opportunity to find that elusive community. And to find that kind of community at work – where they're spending most of their time – is really incredible."
What is your advice to veterans that are within 24 months of leaving active duty and looking for a job in Michigan? What can they do to get ready?
"Of course, I'm going to say that one of the things they can do to get ready is to give us a call. We are the resource connector. Simply go to michigan.gov/mvaa, or a call us at 1-800-642-4838.
I'd also encourage transitioning service members to put together a checklist with ideas of how they can get involved in their community. It's not the kind of thing that someone would think about doing right away because they just don't realize how much they're going to miss those community connections. I know the service members are excited to be out. They're thinking about how they don't have to get up at five in the morning to run, or do those other things that aren't always fun. But people don't really realize the impact of losing an entire family of individuals like you all at once. Your exit day is supposed to be special and focused on your next phase, so it catches so many off guard when they experience this major loss. The loss suddenly becomes clear when you get to this place where you feel like you're in a foreign place in this foreign civilian world – and so many struggle with that. Getting involved with an organization in your community – either one that's giving back or maybe one that just kind of brings like-minded individuals together – will help ease this huge challenge.
One more thing: Transitioning veterans can also check out which Michigan employers are veteran friendly. If they are on that list, you'll know that the MVAA is providing them with tools to help them hire you and provide you with great opportunities that will help retain those veterans like you. But I'd still go back to my main point to find ways to get involved in your community – not just at your employer but was a way to replace that community connection that you'll need."
If you could send a message to veterans that were getting ready to transition, what would you tell them?
I would tell them to hang in there. It is a real process to reacclimate back to the civilian world. You are not alone. Others have gone through it and they are incredibly happy and successful now. And know that the MVAA is a resource that is here to help you. And quite frankly, if there are transitioning service members who aren't in Michigan, but want to figure out how to get connected – just call us. We can get you connected to the right resource in your state as well.
Simply go to michigan.gov/mvaa, or call us at 1-800-642-4838.
In your three years, you've done a bunch of amazing things at the MVAA. Can you share a couple of your success stories that you've been able to celebrate?
"One of the things that really excited me was that for the first time in the last 11 fiscal years, we actually increased our veteran population in the state. We had been projected to continue to decrease, but instead we increased our numbers by about 15,000 veterans. I'm not sure that 15,000 veterans necessarily moved to Michigan, but rather, I believe that a large majority of them actually started to identify as a veteran. This says something. They deserve to be connected to their benefits. And we've brought in over $350 million more in federal benefits in that year.
Also, for me, education is key. The ability for me to be able to educate the community, our veterans, and their caregivers has been hugely successful. A second part of that education mission was working with Governor Whitmer when she accepted the Governor's Suicide Prevention Challenge for Michigan. I say that because not every state initially accepted the challenge – and through that initiative, we've partnered with over 50 organizations to address substance abuse and mental health issues for veterans in our state. We have been educating a new community of people who serve veterans and their families, but they weren't necessarily started as veteran-centric organizations. We help them reach out to veterans so they can identify themselves and that brings a different perspective to their work. We've been able to help banks, hospital systems, even retail stores, to identify veterans and become advocates for them in the communities. That's huge – and such a critical part of surrounding our veterans with resources to address the mental health and suicide rates in our veteran community."
The doctoral work revealed that there are some veterans out there that don't self-identify and your experience at MVAA seems to support that. Why do you think former service members don't identify themselves as veterans?
"There are multiple reasons. There are a lot of veterans who won't identify as a veteran because they believe that in order to have that status, you need to have been in combat. There are a lot of women who won't identify as veterans because they don't think the work that they did for their branch of service counts when it comes to the label of "veteran." There's a lot of Guard members and Reservists who have served 20 or 30 years and will not identify as a veteran, because as they would say – they just served in the National Guard. I slap all those excuses down. There's not just one way to earn the veteran title. These service members signed up, did what they were called to do, and went where they were supposed to go. Each and every one of them are veterans."
Why is it important for civilian organizations to identify the veterans who work for them?
"Many companies onboard veterans and then lose track of who in their organization is a veteran. There's just not a lot of documentation in these in many midsize to small businesses. The organizations who don't identify their own veterans are missing out on talent, and they're also missing out on opportunities to enhance company loyalty from this group of people. Imagine a company who knows the number of veterans that they have and sends out a resource newsletter on a quarterly basis. The communication could highlight some of the resources and benefits that a veteran can take advantage of. I'd think that I would want to stay at that company because they helped me connect to resources that could result in additional money in my pocket or additional health care benefits that I could be utilizing. Companies who don't identify and recognize their own veterans are just not maximizing the potential for brand loyalty. And that loyalty shows itself as good retention numbers."
There are so many civilian organizations that want to recruit and retain veterans, but they don't have the budget to dedicate to that kind of initiative. What does it cost to get somebody from the MVAA to assist an organization with their efforts to attract and retain veterans?
"It costs nothing. We provide the resources. Companies can even have our Michigan Veteran Connector toolkits that employees can use and that costs nothing. You simply ask us for the toolkit and we send the toolkit right to you so you can become a Michigan Veteran Connector. You even get a cool sticker to put in your window that says you're a Michigan Veteran Connector. If you become a Michigan Veteran-Friendly Employer, you can get that official designation and promote it on your website to show that you're veteran friendly. And it all costs employers nothing. Ultimately, it's a resource that comes from taxpayer dollars, so we are making sure that we're being good stewards of that support. Our role is to supply information and understand the needs of our veterans and their spouses so they can find employment that is suitable for them.
Keep in mind that we also partner with other folks who conduct job fairs. For example, we may partner with Michigan workforce development or the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity. We create cohorts of Veteran-Friendly Employers to go together to places like Fort Hood or Fort Bragg. The goal is to get some folks hired on the spot and bring them back to Michigan. So, those are some of the ways that we're doing it. We haven't had an MVAA job fair in quite a while since COVID-19, but we are always looking to partner with other organizations who are having job fairs."
As we wrap up this interview, is there anything else that you wanted to share on these topics we've been discussing?
I know we've talked about it already, but I think one of the biggest things for employers who are looking to hire veterans is to implement veteran-friendly policies – even something as simple as offering paid time off to attend their VA health care appointments. Those types of benefits can be huge. It's a great recruitment tool, and it's something that helps with the mental health and wellness.
I'd also to encourage employers to utilize our website and even provide a link to it right on your company communications so veterans can get connected to the resources we provide. Some of the benefits that veterans can access save both the veteran and the company money. For example, veterans can often receive VA health care so the employer doesn't have to pay for those medical expenses. So understanding what resources are available can benefit the civilian organizations as well. The skills and talents that a veteran brings to the workforce are amazing and if the MVAA can help them access resources and benefits that they've earned, then everybody gets something out of the connection."
The consultants at Mission Next Consulting want to thank Zaneta Adams and the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency. Your time and insights are extremely valuable and we appreciate the opportunity to share your thoughts with our readers. If readers have any questions on the material that is presented here, please reach out to Mission Next Consulting from our Contact Us page on www.MissionNext.biz
Published: August 12, 2022
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