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

Les Craig, executive director of the Montana State University Innovation Campus and the Blackstone LaunchPad, helps coach campus-affiliated entrepreneurs building their own businesses. Craig said that one of his ongoing goals is to help market Montana as a great place for veterans. (Thomas Kurdy photo)

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, Craig 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,” Craig said. “I was very narrow-minded in terms of what I could do.”

At the time, Craig 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, Craig 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,” Craig 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, Craig 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,” Craig 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, Craig 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.

Craig 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.

Craig’s 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.”

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.”

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. (Leonardo DRS photo).

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.”

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.”

For more information, visit the Montana High Tech Business Alliance.

Katy Spence writes for the Montana High Tech Business Alliance, a nonpartisan statewide association of more than 250 high tech and manufacturing firms and affiliates.