For 11 unemployed U.S. veterans in Michigan, finding work might be easy after Friday. That's because they're the latest cohort to complete Vets to Ag, a training program developed in partnership between the Michigan State University (MSU) Institute of Agricultural Technology (IAT) and the Veterans Services Division of the Michigan Workforce Development Agency. The program is supported by local Michigan Works! agencies, state and local veteran's services organizations, and shelters that serve homeless veterans.
The veterans, many of whom were homeless, completed a six-week training program on meat processing and cutting. They spent four weeks at the Kellogg Biological Station in Hickory Corners, learning some of the basics of agriculture, meat production, resume writing and leadership training. And businesses are stepping up to hire the vets.
JBS, a Brazilian-owned meat processing company with eight plants across the country and an operation in Plainwell, has agreed to hire them, though Tom Smith, assistant director of IAT, believes that other companies will be interested in their skills, too.
"Every one of these vets will have more than one job offer in Michigan," Smith says. "We literally cannot fill the need for workers in this industry in the state."
The training was coordinated by IAT, which is housed in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) at MSU. Program instructors included CANR faculty and staff members in the departments of Animal Science and Community, Agriculture, Recreation and Resource Studies.
"To date the Vets to Ag program has enrolled dozens of veterans into training for available jobs in Michigan's agricultural industry, providing a pathway to independence and self-sufficiency for vets with significant barriers to employment," says Michael West, operations manager of the Veterans Services Division of the Michigan Workforce Development Agency and a Navy veteran. Previously, the Vets to Ag program trained veterans in Christmas tree harvesting and lawn manicuring and tree trimming.
According to state of Michigan data, the state unemployment rate for veterans is 11.3%, and even higher among those veterans serving since 9/11. That's higher than the 8.9% general unemployment rate in the state. The U.S. Veterans Administration estimates there are 723,000 veterans in Michigan.
"I heard about the Vets to Ag program," says Joe Braunsdorf of Saginaw, one of the veterans in the program. "I enjoyed working in agriculture in the past. How many people get the opportunity at age 50 to start a new life?"
The Vets to Ag program has attracted corporate attention, with a number of companies recently pledging to hire veterans.
Marilyn Sellers, veterans outreach manager at B3 Solutions, LLC, a provider of customer-focused services and solutions that enable government organizations to optimize their performance, was inspired by the veterans hard work. Her company is providing the veterans with gift cards to purchase new clothing.
"These men have worked so hard over the past six weeks," Sellers said. "The least we can do is to provide them with some new clothes for their new lives."