When deadly floods inundated Texas in May, cooperative linemen went to work in conditions that required as much courage as electrical skills to restore power and save the system. Jason Forbis, a former Army sergeant deployed in Baghdad, was one of those linemen.
Forbis and his crew at United Cooperative Services (UCS) worked every night and weekends for five weeks, sometimes in neck-high water to cut trees and free power lines.
The 32-year-old native of Olney, Texas, pulled from his military experience to get the job done.
“You’re trained for dedication, selflessness, to know that there is no obstacle you can’t overcome. You always look for a way to finish the job,” says Forbis, who joined the co-op in March 2014. “You keep your head up and try to see light at end of tunnel. It’s going to pay off for a good purpose.”
For UCS members it did. Ray Beavers, the co-op’s general manager and CEO in Cleburne, credits Forbis for his guts, stamina, and dedication.
“He understands his purpose, his role. He’s just an outstanding employee, and when he joined the United family, he fit like a glove to hand,” he says.
Unfortunately, joblessness persists among U.S. veterans, of which 44 percent are from rural America.
The unemployment gap between veterans and non-veterans, ages 20 to 24, peaked at 15.2 percent in 2011, according to the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University. It remained at 10.4 percent in July 2015.
As an estimated 14,400 electric co-op jobs open up over the next five years, NRECA has joined the U.S. Department of Energy’s Veteran Hiring Initiative to fill co-op vacancies and reduce the unemployment of returning military and their spouses nationwide.
UCS and six other electric co-ops across the country are partnering with NRECA in the effort.
“We want to expand our co-op pipeline with great talent to fill the many jobs that will be opening up,” says Michelle Rostom, NRECA’s Veteran Initiative program director. NRECA and its co-op partners will follow nationally recognized best practices and guidelines for hiring and retaining skilled veterans.
“In addition to the diverse technical talents and trainability our veterans bring to co-ops, there are many parallels between military culture and electric cooperative culture, including mission, teamwork, and commitment to community,” she says.
Add to that discipline, adaptability, and no quit, according to co-op leaders involved in the initiative.
The military might be the go-to source for the skills co-ops will need in the future, noted Tim Lindahl, general manager of Wheat Belt, PPD in Sidney, Neb.
“We need employees with much different skills than we had 10 years ago,” he says.
Kim Leftwich took the helm of Coles-Moultrie Electric Cooperative in March after serving 25 years in the Air Force and having a career at Illinois Power. The Mattoon, Ill., co-op’s president and CEO says he is excited for the chance to “open the door” for veterans seeking new careers.
“The military have skills that may not be perfectly matched, but we can train them so they can grow into the opportunity,” says Leftwich.
Co-ops, he says, offer “solid jobs with great pay and great benefits and great opportunity to advance,” all job requirements that are top of mind to those just leaving the military, he says.
NOVEC in Manassas, Va., has hired a lot of former military over the years. In 2008, the co-op received an award from the Department of Defense for the care it showed the family of an Army reservist when he was deployed to Kuwait.
“I would lean toward the person with military experience, all other things being equal,” says Stan Feuerberg, president and CEO of the co-op, located 30 miles from The Pentagon. “People who work in our industry have to be disciplined. If you work around an energized line, if you touch it at the wrong time, it will kill you. Discipline taught in the military can be used at co-op positions.”
A Really Good Fit
Communications specialist Blair Cirulli, 25, joined NOVEC this year after completing her enlistment with the Army as a sergeant and earning a degree at the University of Maryland.
“Blair is a really good fit for us,” says Feuerberg. “She served her country, earned her degree, and sought employment.”
The native of Sacramento, Calif., was an Army public affairs specialist for five years, telling the stories of a 3,500-soldier unit through words, photographs, and video. She was deployed in Afghanistan for one year.
At NOVEC, Cirulli says she has been learning about electricity.
“Doing what is asked of me is not difficult,” says Cirulli. “It’s been fun. I find myself looking at power lines. If a tree is next to a power line, I wonder why it hasn’t been cleared.”
At Wheat Belt PPD, Lindahl says he couldn’t believe his good luck when Brandon Reuter, a former Army specialist in cybersecurity, applied for a job in January to manage computers at the 27-employee co-op.
Reuter, 31, served primarily at the Pentagon and 13 months in Afghanistan. He’d parlayed his much-sought-after cyber security skills into contractor positions in Washington and Germany. He recently landed a spot as an AMI/IT technician at Wheat Belt, a power district in the tiny Western Nebraska hamlet, of Sidney.
The family-oriented environment at Wheat Belt “makes you feel more welcome. To me, it makes you want to come to work,” he says.
But first he had to convince Lindahl that he was for real.
“I gave my resume to big companies who thought I wouldn’t stick around, that I was too qualified. When I interviewed at Wheat Belt, I told Tim and Jim Weeda [Wheat Belt’s IT manager], ‘I’m not going anywhere. This is where my wife and I want to be,’” says Reuter.
Sell the Co-op Culture
Reuter found the job at Wheat Belt the old-fashioned way: an ad in the newspaper. He has plenty of suggestions to make co-ops an easier find for jobseekers fresh out of the military.
First, advertise through local VA offices and hospitals. The U.S. Army Signal Corps, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and American Legion Posts also all have job search tools on their sites.
“Most have relocation-assistance programs for veterans who want jobs or are having trouble finding jobs,” Reuter says. “If co-ops got involved in that, there would be a whole lot more veterans coming to co-ops.”
Reuter and Cirulli say electric co-ops have a lot to offer, including great medical benefits and a family-oriented environment.
Working for a co-op is “going to give you that sense of reliability and sense of duty that you had in the Army, as well as a team atmosphere to help you accomplish your goals and get the job done,” says Reuter. “It would be appealing to a lot of people, especially Army guys where they had a support system. Coming into new jobs in the civilian world, to have a support system like this, I think, would help a lot of people.”
Cirulli came across the NOVEC opening through a job website and found the definition of a co-op to be “very similar to that of the military. United to serve, democratic, voluntary.”
“Co-ops should sell your culture. People from the military do look for a culture you can fit into,” she says.
NOVEC’s Feuerberg remembered the co-op’s former head of corporate security who was a retired Marine colonel and an exemplary employee. The co-op lost him to brain cancer.
“He understood teamwork, he understood chain of command, he understood his role in the organization,” says Feuerberg. “Some saw him as a crusty, old former marine. The coffee he made was horrible. It was a delight working with the man.”
That position remains open.