Wisconsin’s veterans take their skills beyond the battlefield

Perseverance, determination among traits transferred from military service

Daniel Skinkis cleans his rifle while serving in Iraq.

Having served himself, Christopher Yeh knows the veterans he considers hiring have experienced structure, know how to follow the chain of command and are capable of leadership.

“Sometimes, you need to have those employees or veterans in your working environment that are going to help push the others,” said Yeh, safety and compliance manager at Oak Creek-based Aim Transfer & Storage.

But veteran skillsets go beyond just being reliable and dependable. In Yeh’s case, the attention to detail and appreciation for standard operating procedures learned during 13 years in the U.S. Army, including two tours of duty in Iraq, translates perfectly to handling OSHA regulations.

“Where a lot of people fail, at least in my area of the industry, is they don’t interpret the regulations in the right way,” he said.

Yeh is one of several veterans
BizTimes spoke to about transferring skills they learned in the military to the civilian workforce. For some, their military skills transfer directly to what they work on every day. For others, it is more about the intangibles.

Carlson
Carlson

Mark Carlson, Laughlin Constable executive vice president for planning, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1983. He flew S-3 Viking anti-submarine jets off the aircraft carrier USS Ranger, served on Colin Powell’s staff at the Pentagon from 1989 to 1992 and eventually retired with the rank of lieutenant commander.

He said it is natural for him to look at things with a big picture focus. Every mission he flew came with an objective and he would rely on his training and experience to accomplish it. In the business world, Carlson said it is easy for people to get caught up in day-to-day activities and lose sight of the big picture objective.

“They tend to lose the focus on what we are really trying to accomplish,” he said.

Carlson added that being on and flying off aircraft carriers is a stressful experience that teaches the importance of being calm, smart and thoughtful under pressure, while also relying on instincts.

“I think there’s a lot of that application in business as well,” he said.

State situation

Wisconsin’s veterans have done well in the job market in recent years. The veteran unemployment rate was 8.9 percent in 2011, 1.4 percentage points higher than the non-veteran rate at the time. The veteran unemployment rate didn’t fall below the non-veteran rate until 2014, and was at 3.6 percent in 2015, compared with 4.4 percent for non-veterans.

It isn’t all good news, however. The state’s 2015 unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans was 5.6 percent, according to a report by the Democratic staff of Congress’ Joint Economic Committee.

Jeremy Kattner working at American Defense Mfg in New Berlin.
Jeremy Kattner working at American Defense Mfg in New Berlin.

Matching veterans with the right employers has proven important over the past several years, said John Scocos, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs. That means targeting specific veterans for specific occupations instead of taking a general approach. The department has received a grant from the National Governors Association to focus on transitioning mechanics, military police and nurses to similar civilian careers.

The department also works with veterans on interview skills and translating their military occupational specialties to civilian work. At employer fairs, the department works with human resources staff to discuss the skills veterans have and how to handle disabled veterans or those with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Employers are so critical,” Scocos said, adding that many want to hire veterans and the challenge is connecting them with the right candidates.

Applying skills to the civilian world

Jeremy Kattner, technical support and sales representative at American Defense MFG LLC in New Berlin, specialized in small arms repair when he served in the Army from 2006 to 2012.

“It translates over perfectly to what I do now,” he said of working at the firearms and mounts maker.

Kattner spends time handling tech support, assembling rifles and generally troubleshooting. He’s also able to lend his background and expertise to the design and engineering team to make products more ergonomic and user-friendly.

Like Kattner, Sheboygan resident Ben DeVore specialized in small arms repair. When he joined the National Guard, he was already planning to someday open his own business focused on gun repair and restoration. He made the business, American Gun Resurrection, a reality at the end of 2015. He’s running it out of his house for now, but would eventually like to build it into a one-stop shop for shooting sports.

“I’d like to be able to create jobs,” DeVore said.

While he works toward that goal, DeVore is also putting his military training to work at Pace Industries in Grafton. He was hired for welding but now handles maintenance on third shift.

“The machines I work on I had never even seen a day in my life,” DeVore said of working at the die casting company. But he said he gained confidence in the military.

“Even to this day, there are sometimes problems that arise that I haven’t encountered before,” he said. The expectation in the military is for the task to be completed, so he keeps trying until he finds a solution.

Yeh agreed, adding there’s always a solution, but sometimes those who haven’t served are willing to accept that something has always been done a certain way.

“You’ve got to have positive movement forward,” Yeh said, and change takes time.

Daniel Skinkis cleans his rifle while serving in Iraq.
Daniel Skinkis cleans his rifle while serving in Iraq.

Daniel Skinkis is one of those veterans whose skills didn’t directly transfer from the military to the civilian workforce. The Associated Bank portfolio manager worked in aviation logistics during his time in the Marine Corps. He spent time stationed in Arizona and San Diego, along with tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When he left the Marines, Skinkis enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh for business. He eventually found his way to a corporate training program at Associated.

While he acknowledged tracking shipments of large helicopter parts doesn’t have a lot in common with finance, Skinkis said veterans generally have the traits of discipline, confidence, hard work and determination.

“We have those skills; we’re willing to do what it takes to get the job done,” Skinkis said.

He recalled a superior in the Marines telling him it is important to make a manager’s life easier. At Associated, he’s had superiors express a desire to hire more veterans for their background.

Skinkis said more veterans need to realize they have a lot to offer, even if their specialty doesn’t explicitly transfer to the civilian workforce.

“Just make sure you use them and that you learn to speak to them correctly,”
he said. n

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Arthur Thomas
Arthur covers manufacturing for BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.