Maine needs skilled, experienced workers, and transitioning military might be at least part of the answer. Boots2Roots is an organization that helps transitioning military find and land jobs in Maine, playing matchmaker with companies and organizations that are looking for a wide variety of skilled employees. Executive Director, Bill Benson, shares why Maine employers and veterans make such a perfect match.
Rich: Our guest this week is the executive director for Boots2Roots, a Maine nonprofit with a mission of helping transitioning military members find meaningful work here in Maine. Prior to his current position, he owned and operated a small wood products manufacturing business out of Gorham. It was during his ownership of this small business that he became aware of the growing workforce shortage in the state of Maine. He also spent 24 years on active duty with the United States Army. Before retiring as a Colonel in 2014, he spent most of his career in various operation assignments, including 42 months deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. His last duty station was at Fort Hood, Texas, where he commanded a brigade of over 3,800 soldiers. He’s married to his wife, Tara and has three children ranging in age from 15 to 20. He lives with his family in Gorham, Maine where he also serves on the Gorham School committee and volunteers his time with a local Boy Scout troop. He is not a native Mainer, but wants you to know that he got here as fast as he could.
Bill: That’s right.
Rich: Please welcome Bill Benson. Bill, good to have you here.
Bill: Yeah, thanks for that introduction.
Yury: That is a delight, and thank you for the years of service and defending the freedom, and then giving us the opportunity to do what we do, without being afraid.
Bill: Thank you.
Yury: Bill, you were a small business owner when you first moved to Maine. How did you become aware of the workforce shortage, and what impact did it have on you and your company?
Bill: Weekly, I would have interactions with other business owners. We worked a lot with the building trades and contractors, building supply companies, flooring companies and so forth. Every conversation was dominated by their need to find and retain good, talented people. That was every conversation. That’s probably true of most business owners most of the time. They’re always looking for good people and trying to figure out how to retain them. But the problem is more acute today, because of the workforce shortage here in the state.
Bill: How did that affect my business? It was a small business, so few employees and, and we didn’t really have a labor shortage per se, or an employment problem with inside the company. But it certainly affected us, and it affected us in this way. If a normal customer of ours would put in 10 orders a year, if they were at full capacity, but if they only had 50% of the workers, or because of the workforce shortage, they can only complete 50% of the projects, well then I’m only getting five orders a year. While the labor shortage may not be impacting my business per se, and the day-to-day operations of the business, it absolutely affected our bottom line. Because the building contractors and builders that we talked to, and the flooring stores and so forth that we dealt with, building supply companies, the number of orders that they were filling was less, because they couldn’t get the work done.
Bill: I used to visit job sites quite frequently, and it was rare that there was somebody under the age of 40 on a construction job site. That really spoke to the aging of the population, and the fact that there just aren’t a lot of young people that were entering the workforce in those fields.
Rich: It is interesting because you always think of like, how does the workforce shortage that we have affect my business directly? If you’re able to hire the right kind of people, you’re like, “Oh well it doesn’t affect me.” But of course it does, because it affects the people you’re selling to, the people you’re buying from, and that is going to have that indirect impact on your bottom line, for sure.
Rich: Let’s talk a little bit about Boots2Roots. What do you do? I mentioned in the intro that you help transitioning military members find meaningful work here in Maine. But what does that look like, exactly?
Bill: Sure. We’re a Maine-based nonprofit. We’ve been around since 2016 in this current configuration. Our whole mission is to attract talented transitioning military members up to 12 months before they transition, and get out in front of their transition, and show them the value and the attractiveness and the things that Maine has to offer someone to settle down and put down roots in the community.
Rich: I’m curious, is this a mass marketing and advertising thing you’re doing, or are you going one-on-one? It’s a fairly small nonprofit. You guys have only recently started it a few years ago or something like that, correct?
Rich: So a lot of it’s on your shoulders.
Bill: Right. We started in 2016. We’re largely a volunteer-based organization. I’m actually currently the only paid employee, but keep a look out for current job postings or future job postings.
Rich: Oh, nice.
Bill: That’ll be coming in the beginning of the year. Because we are looking to hire a new program director and then potentially also a program specialist, to do the day-to-day work that’s being done by volunteers mostly now.
Bill: We have a network of professionals who are career coaches and interview coaches and resume coaches, who know how to translate military experience into words that an employer, as civilian employer, is going to understand. That’s a huge part of what we do. But it’s all done through a network of volunteers. We also have some, a position called a peer mentor. These are people who have previously transitioned. They’re former veterans themselves, and they’re now working in businesses throughout the state. They know what it’s like to go through that process. They’re there to be a sounding board for people who are making the transition, “What’s the interview process like? What are some expectations coming after I submit an application? What are the schools like in the greater Bangor area?”
Bill: Some of those. Because making that personal connection is really important to establishing, being happy where you end up. Our goal in Boots2Roots is to have our teammates employed within 60 days of arriving to Maine. We want to have them stay in their current job for 12 months, one year. First year retention is really important, because if you can get them through that first year, then it’s usually a good fit and it means they’re going to stay long-term. So you want to show value to the company. You don’t want them to invest a lot of time and energy and money in training someone and then, just to have them leave within six months.
Bill: We have an 85% rate success rate in placing teammates within 60 days, 100% have been placed within five months. We’re at 90% for first year retention. We think these are, those are really solid numbers, and they speak to the process and connecting people with the right jobs and preparing them well for their interviews and their resumes and doing that translation, but also establishing those personal relationships with businesses, so that they know what to expect when they bring a veteran in.
Bill: I want to I want to emphasize this. We don’t want businesses to hire a veteran because they’re doing them a favor. It’s not a sympathy hire. Hire these guys and girls because they’re going to make your business better. That’s what we’re trying to message.
Rich: Right, this is not charity.
Bill: It is not charity. We have talented people who are looking to transition. Over 200,000 people transition out of the military every year. That’s a staggering number of people, and they all end up somewhere.
Bill: Right? We want them to choose to end up in Maine.
Yury: Do you know how many of those people actually end up in Maine?
Bill: That’s a great question. It’s something that we’re working with our federal delegation, congressional delegation and the Bureau of Veteran Services to try to improve the communication between the Department of Defense and the States. Because currently, there is no mechanism to find out from the Department of Defense how many people who may have enlisted from Maine are even transitioning in a given year, that we would even have an opportunity to reach out to them, as a small state, to attract them back here. So that’s a challenge. Because if you end up like we did, in Texas, there’s a whole network in Texas that is in place to hire veterans and keep them employed in the state. Because there’s a lot of federal benefits and money that goes along to keeping a military family in a state.
Bill: Over 80% of our teammates that we work with are married and have kids. So they’re going to be buying houses. Their spouses are going to go to work. Their kids are all going to go to work, at some point. So there’s a lot of value added. Not to mention if they’ve served 20 years, they have a military pension. Those are federal dollars that are going to get spent somewhere. They have GI Bill benefits that go to pay for education expenses. Again, if they are a military retiree, they have healthcare benefits. Those are all federal dollars that are going to get spent somewhere.
Bill: To your point, we as a state don’t even know how many people from … that enlisted from the state of Maine are transitioning in any given year.
Bill: So we’re not able to compete to get those workers back into the state.
Yury: So it’s not just retaining them as former residents of the state.
Bill: Right, right.
Rich: Like a boomerang project.
Yury: But then it’s like actually recruiting outside our state, to come to Maine and enjoy the lifestyle that the state has to offer.
Bill: Absolutely. Over 50% of our teammates currently are not originally from the state of Maine, or their spouses aren’t from the state of Maine. Now, they may have connections because they served here. Brunswick Naval Air Station, there are still a lot of people that are coming back to the state who served previously in Brunswick. There’s also still a Coast Guard presence here in Maine. We do get some Coast Guard folks who want to stay here. But Maine’s got a lot to attract, a lot to offer to appeal to a veteran who’s leaving the Service. But they don’t know that there’s economic opportunity here. That’s one of the challenges.
Bill: If you go outside of the state, and again, I transitioned from Texas, but the messaging around the state of Maine has always been, “Great place to go vacation, but there’s no Internet, high taxes, and no economic opportunity.” That may have been true at one time. But there absolutely is economic opportunity, and there are a lot of other things in the state that are appealing to the military community. I mean, the hunting and fishing obviously, and the ability to go outdoors and spend time outdoors.
Bill: All of that. There’s a large segment of the military community that is passionate about those things. But also, the quality of life, the less dense population centers that Maine has to offer. Military families are used to moving and living in places that they’re not from.
Bill: Right? And making it successful. So, they are very open to those opportunities. They just have to know that they’re here.
Yury: Speaking about the successes, what are the benefits of hiring veterans? So outside of the financial benefits that you mentioned for the state, but for the employer and the company?
Bill: Really, I don’t want to say every job that exists in the civilian community exists in the military. But certainly, large numbers of them do, from your mechanical jobs and your technology jobs, to human resources and facilities and project management, operations, training, safety. I mean, all those things exist within the military. But really, you’re getting a hardworking, dedicated, trustworthy, trainable person. One of the things that people may not know about the military is that you don’t stay in any one job for usually more than 12 to 24 months. My longest single job was 33 months. During that time, I had four different bosses, and we deployed for 12 months and came back. There was a lot of turmoil and change and we were doing different things. But outside of that, six to 12 to 18 months was the normal timeframe. Pretty much, they put you in a situation, you learn that situation, you become an expert at it, and then they say, “Oh look. He or she was successful. Let’s give him some more responsibility.”
Rich: Right, right.
Bill: Because that broadens you, and it gives you a different set of experiences, so when you get to the positions of higher … more responsibility, you’ve had a breadth of experience to be able to influence your decision making at those levels. I think all of those things are characteristics that people are looking for. More and more, the business owners that we talk to, and the HR professionals that we talk to, recognize that it’s really, to put it simply, attitude over aptitude, where they can train somebody the specific skills, in many cases, that they’re looking for in the job. But they can’t train attitude. It’s harder to train leadership. It’s harder to train people how to manage or interact with people in an effective way.
Bill: Those are the harder things that are harder to train.
Rich: Right, the soft skills are very difficult.
Bill: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely.
Rich: You can always train for the some of the more hard skills. It sounds like there’s a lot of benefits here. Leadership, ability to follow orders, adaptability, are some of the things that you’ve touched upon. But obviously, there are some business owners out there who have concerns about hiring veterans. What are some of the concerns you’ve heard out there, and then maybe what are the counter arguments that you might use?
Bill: Sure. Most messaging that we see, and I think most people would agree, when you hear the term veteran, or you think about veterans, there’s a lot of messaging surrounding the fact that veterans are broken people, that they have PTSD or substance abuse, or the homeless veteran problem, or the veteran suicide problem that’s very acute right now across the country. Those things are all true. Those populations exist, and they need help. There are a lot of charitable organizations and state organizations that are focused on helping those people.
Bill: I don’t want to take anything away from that, but that’s not the majority of people coming out of the Service. That’s the message that we want to send, is that, that may be 10%, and that’s a swag. That’s not based in any statistics that I’ve seen. But the large majority, I would say 90% of the people that I served with over 24 years, are those hardworking, dedicated, trainable people.
Bill: That’s what we’re really focused on. When we have a teammate reach out to us who may have one of those issues that we’ve mentioned, there are other veteran service organizations within the State of Maine that to help them overcome those issues. We refer them to those service organizations all the time. Well, not all the time. We actually don’t get contacted by many transitioning military members who have those types of issues. The population that has those issues is actually, for people who are transitioning, is actually getting smaller. As we get further removed from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, that population is actually getting smaller. But the messaging still seems to be as strong, and so we want to allay the fears that employers have that they’re getting a broken individual. That’s not the case. Again, hire the veteran because they’re going to make your business better.
Bill: If you don’t think they’re going to, then don’t hire them.
Bill: Right? We’re a nonprofit, but we don’t consider ourselves a charitable organization. We’re really a workforce development and workforce preparation organization.
Rich: Sure, and the small minority that you’re talking about, this is true in the rest of the workforce as well.
Rich: I mean, we run into these kinds of things as hiring processes go all the time. But I think the message here is just the fact that we’ve got these people who have a strong skill set and a strong ability to adapt to new situations, and there’s a lot of benefits that they bring to the table as somebody who has to hire.
Yury: Bill, we were talking about all the benefits of having veterans who are transitioning. Now the question is, how can we bring all of those veterans to Maine?
Rich: Maybe not all at once.
Yury: Not at once. I know it’s maybe a little bit overwhelming. But are there any disadvantages that our state has displayed, and maybe people don’t want to just come here? Is there something that we need to fix, to make Maine more appealing and attractive to that group of-
Bill: Sure. I’ve talked about some of the things that would attract military members to Maine. Another one is the fact that there’s no state income tax on military pensions in the state, which was enacted three or four years ago. That’s a big deal. That’s part of the attractiveness. But we need to do a better job, in my opinion, as a state, of getting out there and making the case that Maine is a place to come live, work, put down roots, and grow a family. That’s the demographic that we’re connected with in the military. I think that’s the demographic that’s most valuable to the state.
Bill: As I mentioned, there’s over 200,000 people who leave the military every year. I went through the perception that that Maine has outside of the state. If you weren’t from here, you would never think about coming to Maine, because the messaging surrounding Maine is not always positive, unless you want to come there for a vacation.
Bill: I think there is a lot that we can do to change that messaging. Personally, I think as an organization, a year from now, we hope to be in a position where we can get out in front of those veteran populations. There’s something called the Transition Assistance Program, which the federal government spends $200 million … or $100 million on plus a year, specifically to prepare transitioning military members for post-military life. But again, those programs largely are focused around the large military bases. Because that’s the easiest thing for them to tie into and connect with and establish networks to. So how do we, as a state, tap into those same transition assistance programs, and get out in front of these transitioning populations six to 12 months before they transition, and let them know about Maine and give them a reason to come to Maine? That is a goal of ours. We’re working towards that. We’re also constantly working with growing our network of business partners, so we have a stable of businesses that are ready to hire veterans and that the process is streamlined.
Bill: One of the challenges we have, for most transitioning military members, and this may be hard for some to think about, but because, again, our demographic, they’re 26 to 50 years old.
Bill: But if you’re a 45 say, getting out of the Service and you’re applying for a job, this is the first civilian job you probably have ever applied for, right, and certainly ever filled out an online application and submitted an online resume and done all those other things. That process now is fairly cumbersome and daunting, and it’s really a process that was put in place to make it easy for companies to sort through applications and so forth.
Bill: I was just talking to a business this morning, and they said in the past, they would have a job opening and they would have 40 applications for that job. Now, they might have one or two. So they have a system that was designed for sorting through 40 applications to find the one or two or three that were the best fit very quickly, so then they could focus on those one, two or three. But now, they’re in a position where they’re only getting one or two or three applicants. So how do they quickly reach out to those people and capture them before they’ve moved on to another job? This is definitely a job seeker’s market, at this point.
Bill: The people that we talk to are all poaching the same employees from each other. That is a huge issue right now. We’ve had several five-star partners, Bath Iron Works, Dead River, FMI, MEMIC, most recently, have signed on to support us financially for the next three years. They’ve all hired teammates of ours, but there’s no commitment. This isn’t a pay-for-service contractual obligation. But they see the benefit in improving the workforce situation in Maine. To our earlier conversation, they understand that if the businesses around them start to fail, then they’re not going to be as successful in their business as well. So they see a benefit to growing the overall workforce in the state, regardless of whether … how many people they actually hire from our service.
Rich: Exactly. This brings up a good point, because you mentioned some of these bigger organizations, bigger companies we’ve heard of. But let’s say somebody is listening right now and they’re like, “Oh my God, I definitely am suffering from that workforce shortage. I’d like to know that there are these people out here. I’d like to get more applications from transitioning military.” Are they going through you? How do they let you know that they’re open towards getting applications from transitioning military? How do they become part of it, if they’re maybe not at the size of a Bath Iron Works, where they can just throw money at you?
Bill: Right. As a small business, former small business owner, I’m very aware of the struggles that, and the time commitment that is involved by a small business owner. They don’t have an HR department, right?
Bill: They don’t have HR software that’s screening applicants.
Bill: If they’re looking for someone, it’s usually all the owner that is spending the time reviewing applicants, usually writing the job description, doing all the interviews, making a decision. Oftentimes, they don’t have the same resources to compete with some of the larger companies, as far as enticing people to come onto their team. I’m very aware of that, and where I’m very eager to open and establish a small business network as well. We’re not just catering to the larger businesses.
Bill: Right now, the way to do that is to get on our website at boots2roots.org, and my phone number and email is on there, and contact me. I will usually respond within 24 to 48 hours, and we’ll start a dialogue. I love to go and visit businesses. Again, I was at one this morning before this discussion. Because we want to understand the culture of the business, as well. I mentioned earlier that, the 90% success, one year retention rate. That’s because I think we, not only do we understand our teammates needs, but we understand the businesses’ needs. We don’t want to put somebody in a position that they’re not really suitable for. We would love to hear from smaller businesses.
Bill: And then, we have a teammate list that I send out once a month and we’ve been doing this since July. Currently, there are seven teammates who we have actively looking, who have completed resumes and they’re actively looking for work. They’re ready to start work as soon as January somewhere, some of them are who are already here in Maine and some who are transitioning to Maine this month.
Bill: We have 23 others teammates who are in the pipeline. They don’t have a resume complete. They haven’t been through interview coaching. But they’re coming. We know they’re coming. They’ve committed to coming to Maine. So we’re there in some part of the process. Again, our goal is to make sure that we have all of that in a database online, that’s accessible by employers. At the beginning of next year, we hope to launch this so that the list, instead of sending it out on an email at the beginning of every month, because that’s easy to do with five people or seven people, but if you had 20 people or 50 people, it’s much, much more cumbersome. So let’s get this on a database and give access to employers, so if they have a need, they could just go to this website, sort by the experience they’re looking for, and come up with a list of candidates not only who are ready, but who might be ready six months from now.
Bill: How powerful is that? If you’re a hiring manager or you’re a business owner and you know that someone’s transitioning, someone’s retiring, someone’s getting promoted, and you know that position is going to come open six months from now, and you could start having a dialogue with candidates who are in that position. They’re a captive audience. They’re going to transition. They are going to be looking for a new job. You don’t always have that. You have people who apply who are in work, currently working, and you don’t know-
Rich: If that going to leave or-
Bill: … if they’re going to leave that job or not. These people are all leaving their job. That’s already been decided. So I think there’s a great connection there, and a great value, both to the business and to the teammate, in establishing those earlier. The way to do that right now is to contact me personally. It’s why we have to grow as an organization, because we understand that’s, again, sustainable when you have, you’re working with seven people at a time. But not when you’re working with 50 or 100, which is where we hope to be and where we think we can be, based on 200,000 transitioning military members, and the fact the needs that exist in the state right now. So that’s where we’re headed.
Rich: Fantastic. I look forward to seeing that database when you get it up and running.
Yury: It sounds like the LinkedIn and the ZipRecruiter-
Bill: Or the monster.
Yury: Yeah, or the monster-
Bill: For transitioning.
Yury: … for the military families. That is fantastic. We wish you the best of luck.
Bill: It’s specific to Maine.
Yury: It’s specific to Maine.
Bill: I mean, that’s important, right? So many of these things are national and again, they’re very impersonal, I think. Again, for someone who’s new to that environment, coming out of the military, who hasn’t been living in the civilian job market, has just maybe now established a LinkedIn account and isn’t used to operating in that field, I think the personal connections, especially when you’re trying to get somebody to move someplace they haven’t been or haven’t been in awhile, the personal connections are what make the difference.
Bill: That’s what separates Boots2Roots from some of these other national organizations that might do resume service or interview coach service. But they’re not Maine specific. They weren’t just sitting down with a large Maine company this morning, having a conversation about how to find them better employees. That’s what Boots2Roots is doing, and that’s what I think is the cornerstone of our success. It’s the local relationships we have with great companies, like Bath Iron Works and Dead River and FMI and MEMIC and others, but just to name a few.
Yury: You know, Bill, we can continue this conversation, because it just sounds so fascinating. There are a lot of benefits for the state, as well as the military personnel who’s transitioning to the post-military lifestyle and coming to Maine. But speaking about Maine, here’s the part of the show where we ask all our guests this question. If you could change one thing to improve the business ecosystem in the state of Maine, what would it be?
Bill: Yeah. It’s hard to pick from the list. I mean, I’ve already talked about perception about the Internet, and high income taxes and some of the other challenges that the state faces. Changing the image around Maine, I think, is probably the most important thing that they can do. We’re probably five years behind where I think we need to be on workforce development. The current workforce comes in right around 700,000 workers. It’s projected to fall, based on demographics, to 675,000 workers in the next five to 10 years, and the needs are projected to go up to 750,000 workers. There’s a gap of about 75,000 workers that are needed in the state. So we need to get serious about that. I think we’re five years behind. I think we have to do more proactive outreach and marketing.
Bill: We’re working with Live and Work in Maine. They are starting a boomerang campaign to bring people who left the state, and they’re starting a boomerang campaign to bring them back. We want to be part of that. We also want to get out and be proactive and get in front of these populations of transitioning military members. That’s all part of it. We need to start doing more outreach, get outside the state.
Bill: Because the problem, our workforce problem, is not getting, going to get solved, inside the state of Maine. We’re already at full employment. I know there’s discussions about keeping older workers in the workforce longer, and bringing some of them who may have left the workforce back into the workforce. That’s great. But there’s an end date to that, right? Because eventually, all those people still age out of the workforce.
Bill: That may be a short-term fix.
Rich: Yeah, a bandaid.
Bill: Bandaid for the problem. But it doesn’t fix our problem long-term. That’s why I think getting families to come here, and so you’re not just getting the transitioning military member and their spouse, but all their kids who are going to grow up and take those jobs here, is super important. Getting the messaging outside the state, we need to do a better job on that. We have several initiatives that we’re trying to promote to get out in front of that problem.
Rich: Fantastic. Bill, this has been great. If people want to learn more about Boots2Roots, if they want to connect with you personally, where do we send them?
Bill: So boots2roots.org is our website. It’s just been updated, and we’ve got some more video content that’s coming online here in the next several weeks. Email and phone number are there, to me personally. So I will get those, if you send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. I will get those, and I will respond to you.
Rich: Awesome. And that’s if you’re listening in, that’s boots, the number two, roots.org.
Rich: Bill, this has been great. Thank you very much. You’re doing great work here, and really hope you continue to grow Boots2Roots.
Bill: Yeah, thanks so much.
Yury: We wish you the best. Thank you.