Untapped Potential: Engaging veterans in Montana’s high-tech workforce

Before he became the Executive Director of MSU’s Blackstone LaunchPad, Les Craig served as a U.S. Army Ranger and worked with transitioning veterans at The Commit Foundation. Photo by Thomas Kurdy, Ndigena.

Les Craig’s military career ended in 2008, after 30 months of service as a U.S. Army Ranger. He had a brand-new bride and a brand-new baby. It was time to be a husband and father.

All he had to do was find a job.

Despite already having a degree in applied math and computer science, Les said his transition from infantry officer to civilian employee wasn’t as smooth as he hoped.

“I had a lot of problems as a transitioning veteran,” Les said. “I was very narrow-minded in terms of what I could do.”

At the time, Les only considered opportunities with a direct skills translation such as working as a defense contractor or FBI agent. He couldn’t imagine himself doing anything else. Now, Les looks back and realizes he, like many veterans, undervalued the skills and experience he got from the military. It’s not an uncommon experience for veterans, who may become overwhelmed trying to rejoin the civilian landscape.

“It’s a mid-career transition where there’s a lot of uncertainty,” Les said. “[Veterans are] going into a world where they don’t understand the language and the culture. They understand where they came from, but the civilian world is much different than the military.”

Montana is home to more than 90,000 U.S. veterans, which is nearly 10% of the state’s population. While Montana has been rated as one of the best states for military retirees, Les said that many veterans aren’t aware of the competitive number of high-tech job opportunities in the state. He knows because he was one.

“For three years, I tried to find a job in Montana,” Les told Montana execs gathered for the Montana High Tech Business Alliance’s Butte CEO Roundtable in June 2016. “I was amazed when I finally got to Bozeman. Why didn’t I think of Elixiter? Why didn’t I think of PFL? These were all tech companies that I probably could have been pretty competitive interviewing for, and I never even knew the opportunities existed. So I guarantee that there are dozens of veterans, hundreds of veterans out there like myself.”

Today, Les is the Executive Director of the Montana State University Innovation Campus and the Blackstone LaunchPad, where he helps coach campus-affiliated entrepreneurs building their own businesses. Les said that one of his ongoing goals is to help market Montana as a great place for veterans.

“What I want to see Montana do a better job of is convey to veterans that Montana is a great place to end up,” he said. “It’s a great place to be, a great place to live.”

Part of employing veterans in Montana is training those already in the state. Coding schools, such as Montana Code School or Big Sky Code Academy, can train attendees to become a Jr Web Stack Developer in just 12 weeks. Both schools are in the final stages of becoming eligible to use the GI Bill as tuition.

Les also suggested that both companies and veterans reach out to The COMMIT Foundation, which helps exceptional veterans and service members transition into civilian roles and provides resources for companies hiring veterans.

Les’ wife, Anne Meree Craig, co-founded The COMMIT Foundation. She said there’s a pool of highly talented veterans across the country looking for job opportunities in Montana.

“I’ve got so much talent that wants to move here,” Anne Meree said. “As a state, I believe Montana should set an example of how to get this right simply because we have a smaller population and a tremendous amount of intellect and opportunity.”

Having deployed with the military in an intelligence capacity, Anne Meree said COMMIT  identified three key gaps veterans face as they leave the service: an information gap, which translates to a lack of knowledge about opportunities and undervaluing of their skills; a confidence gap, which manifests as self-doubt in their ability to succeed; and an imagination gap, which prevents veterans from seeing themselves fulfill a new or different role.

COMMIT offers one-on-one services to help qualifying vets navigate the transition and also conducts mentoring workshops where private sector executives engage with transitioning military personnel to ideate, inspire and plan.

For vets who are unsure about taking the first step, Anne Meree has a fundamental piece of advice.

“You’ve got all these people telling you what you should do,” Anne Meree said. “Fight the ‘shoulds.’ Really think through what you want your life to look like and build something where you feel both personally and professionally drawn to a purpose. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s about; it’s about being happy.”

COMMIT is preparing to release an open-source resource manual for companies looking to become more veteran-ready. However, there are some ways Montana companies can start improving now. In addition to developing more action-oriented goals, Anne Meree said there needs to be a more holistic approach to helping vets transition.

“It’s not just integrating them into our companies, it’s integrating them into our communities,” Anne Meree said. “Flipping the mindset of [hiring veterans] being a favor to the vets when it’s really a favor to the companies.  They will add tremendous value in so many ways.”

[Watch COMMIT’s interview with Next Frontier Capital Founder and Managing Partner, Will Price.]

Senator Jon Tester (left), a strong advocate for Montana veterans, with Josh Maki, Vice President of Leonardo DRS in Polson, a company that hires many veterans. Photo courtesy Leonardo DRS.

Some companies, however, already seem to understand that. Polson-based Leonardo DRS sees veteran employees as a competitive advantage in the defense space.

“We’ve found with the type of work we do, veterans fit in very well in our business,” Vice President Josh Maki said. “We have case-after-case study of where pro-veteran hiring has benefitted us.”

Maki said his company has been featured in Military Times for being a leading employer for veterans, and added that working successfully with veteran employees starts at the recruiting stage and continues throughout the onboarding process. And it’s well worth the investment.

“Not every job is necessarily a good fit,” Maki said. “But overall, I just find the veterans that I hire come in — they’re disciplined, they’re organized, they’re not afraid of challenges, and they immediately add value to the team.”

Allen Ellmaker, CEO of Synesis7 in Butte. Photo by Montana Standard.

Veterans have also had success growing their own high tech businesses in Montana.

Butte-based Synesis7 recently won Montana’s Veteran-Owned Small Business of the Year. CEO Allen Ellmaker said his time in the Army forged a foundation that helped him both develop as an informations systems professional and secure major contracts with military commands like the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR).

“Because of my military experience, there’s been a shared link with many of our customers,” Ellmaker said. “Many of them are veterans and/or active duty… and so my military background really helps out there in terms of both the team-building and camaraderie and also the knowledge I bring to the table.”

Ellmaker believes there is a clear path to a high-tech career for veterans, if they are willing to think creatively.

“Don’t let yourself be put in a box,” Ellmaker said. “Don’t limit yourself.”

Ellmaker himself enlisted in the Army in 1969, when enlisting voluntarily meant young men could have more control over what they were trained in. Two weeks before Ellmaker shipped out to Vietnam, he was reassigned to support a tactical nuclear missile detachment in Germany, providing the full range of communications for the unit.

After Ellmaker finished his service, he graduated from Florida State University in Tallahassee with a business degree and emphasis in information management systems and finance. He then worked for companies like EDS, Northern Telecom, and Litton Integrated Systems, working in just about every information and integrated manufacturing systems. He was in South Carolina when he decided he wanted to start his own company in the Northern Rockies.

[Watch for a full company profile about Synesis7 in the coming months.]

While this background helped Ellmaker work his way through a number of fast-growing tech companies and eventually start his own business, he said that a degree wouldn’t necessarily be required for many of today’s veterans.

“Even if this veteran was purely in a combat role, that person should not be shy about what they did in the military, about what they learned in the military,” Ellmaker said. “I know from my experience, there’s value in that training that they received. There’s value in that teaming, the collaboration, the essentialness to work with each other and have each other’s back.”

When applying for a position, Ellmaker suggests veterans or any applicant take the time to learn as much about a company as possible and use that knowledge to craft an employer-centric resume. But Ellmaker said HR departments and company leaders could also be more open to the potential a candidate can bring.

“It’s not so much about your skillset,” Ellmaker said of certain positions. “If it’s the right person, we will work with them. We don’t say, ‘You’re disqualified.’”

Synesis7 is willing to take risks when a new, but perhaps underqualified hire is a great fit for the company. They’ll put the new hire through internal training programs, teaching them military data specifications, XML, and Synesis7 systems. But if he or she decides Synesis7 is not a good fit, Ellmaker said they are welcome to take what they’ve learned to better-suited company.

Veterans at Synesis7 also get the opportunity to use their individual experiences to the best of their abilities at the company, Ellmaker said.

“A veteran can come into our environment with their specific skillsets, and we give them the opportunity then to use those skills and to fold them in, to integrate them into what we do,” Ellmaker said.

As a business owner, Ellmaker said it’s also a company’s responsibility to decide how best they can support not only veterans, but any employee. Company culture is vital at Synesis7, where employees receive wellness benefits and comprehensive insurance at no cost to the employee. Ellmaker added that his company will work with veterans and other hires who may be suffering from personal issues, such as PTSD.

Ellmaker said he never expected to be a defense contractor but, like many veterans, he and his wife were definitely looking for a way to live in Montana.

“We’ll never leave,” Ellmaker said. “I love the mountains. I love being outside and doing all the things you can do outside. I love splitting wood. I wouldn’t trade this for anything at this point.”

This is the first article of a larger series about veterans in tech in Montana.

If your company is veteran-led or has exceptional veteran employees, we’d love to tell your stories. If your company is looking for more resources to make your company veteran-ready, we can connect you. Please contact katy.spence[at]mthightech.org with stories, comments, and ideas for future articles.

About the Author: Katy Spence is Staff Writer and Digital Content Specialist for the Montana High Tech Business Alliance.  She worked previously with the Missoula Current and Treesource, and she’s just finishing up the Environmental Journalism Master’s Program at the University of Montana.

About the Publisher: Launched in 2014, the Montana High Tech Business Alliance is an association of more than 320 high tech and manufacturing companies and affiliates creating high-paying jobs in Montana. For more information visit MTHighTech.org.

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