Manny Gonzales retired from the U.S. Marines six years ago after a 25-year active-duty and Reserves career, but his commitment to supporting his fellow military service members is as fresh as the day he went into the service.

Now vice president of technical services at Sulphur Springs Valley Electric Cooperative in Willcox, Arizona, Gonzales has made it his mission during his 27 years at the co-op to introduce military veterans to careers in the utility industry, and specifically at electric cooperatives.

He tells them how SSVEC’s pro-veteran stance made him feel at home and allowed him to continue to serve his country, backing his three lengthy deployments over the years to Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa and helping him reach the rank of sergeant major.

“The support I got here at SSVEC is part of the reason I was so successful in the Marine Corps,” he says. “I’ve been able to serve my country and work at the co-op at the same time, and I want my fellow service members to have the same positive experience.”

He offers that message to those on temporary duty travel when they come to nearby PT’s Gym, which he owns. When he learns that a gym client is looking to leave active duty, he asks them about their plans.

“My part is explaining to veterans what co-ops have to offer,” he says. “Because most veterans, when they get out, they want to do law enforcement. I was guilty of that as well.”

In an ideal world, all co-ops would have someone with Gonzales’ passion to help attract vets to their ranks. But the fact is that even though utilities have been hiring more ex-soldiers, the energy sector still tends to fly under the radar for vets.

“Unless they know somebody who works in the energy industry, they never think about the energy industry as a potential career path,” says the Center for Energy Workforce Development’s Rosa Schmidt, who oversees the group’s Troops to Energy Jobs initiative.

The irony of this “awareness gap” is that there is near-universal agreement about the synergies between military service and the electric industry.

“Both have strong people with a sense of loyalty and duty in serving our community or country,” says NRECA Principal for Cybersecurity Ryan Newlon, who spent 20 years in the Missouri Army National Guard. “It blows my mind that they’re so similar.”

An elusive group

Over the past two years, there’s been a wave of veteran retirements from the energy industry, dropping their representation from 9.6% in 2019 to 8% in 2021, according to the latest Gaps in the Energy Careers report published by the Center for Energy Workforce Development.

Schmidt says that’s better than the U.S. civilian labor force as a whole, which has about 5.6% veterans, “but we want to do much more.”

“Connecting with men and women transitioning out of the military and showing them the career options and how ideal a fit co-op work is will help co-ops with building a skilled and diverse workforce,” she says.

NRECA launched its Vets Power Us initiative, which Dunham leads, in 2020 to facilitate the connection between job-seeking veterans and co-op career opportunities. Co-ops can access resources to help recruitment efforts and provide information to veterans about jobs.

There are similar hiring initiatives throughout the energy industry, but veterans nevertheless are proving an elusive group to attract.

Advocates say it boils down to breaking down barriers, meeting the veterans where they are, creating awareness of energy jobs and highlighting the similarities.

Schmidt points to CEWD’s Troops to Energy Jobs initiative, which includes a database of veteran job seekers that member companies can access.

“On average, about eight to 10 veterans register each week,” she says. “At the end of the month, that’s 40; at the end of the year, it’s 500.”

In North Carolina, South River EMC runs a “Boots to Buckets” program that offers to pay a veteran’s tuition to the lineworker academy at nearby Nash Community College.

It’s a generous, potentially life-changing prize, yet sometimes the program has no applicants, says Cathy O’Dell, vice president of member service and public relations at the Dunn-based co-op.

“I think it’s like every other scholarship program; it’s hit or miss,” says O’Dell, an Army veteran herself.

Before Newlon joined NRECA, he was systems and network administrator at Co-Mo Connect, the broadband subsidiary of Tipton, Missouri-based Co-Mo Electric. But even though he grew up on Co-Mo lines, he admits to “not investing a whole lot of time, energy and thought to understand exactly what a cooperative was.”

“You have to identify that there’s the military side, there’s the co-op side, and then there’s the civilian world in between,” he says. “The co-op world is very isolated, and some people don’t know what it is unless they have a reason to know what it is.”

'Be proactive'

Proximity to a military base is no guarantee that veterans will flock to a co-op’s HR office, but it does help. For several years, SSVEC has worked with nearby Fort Huachuca, a military intelligence base in Cochise County, on its transition assistance program and career fairs. The co-op also partners with local veterans agencies and participates in Vets Power Us.

Twenty-four of SSVEC’s current employees are veterans, three of whom are in senior leadership, says Eric Petermann, the co-op’s public relations manager.

If a nearby base isn’t an option, advocates suggest other avenues to raise visibility. The Department of Defense’s SkillBridge program helps service members gain real-world experience through specific industry training, apprenticeships or internships during their last 180 days of service.

“If someone who’s going to come and work wants to live in your community during the six months of transition, they can actually come and work for you free,” Schmidt says.

Another avenue is a local armory. Located in more than 2,700 communities in all 50 states, armories, where reservists drill twice a month, vastly outnumber military bases, Newlon says.

“You probably have a better chance of grabbing people there,” he says. “Be pro-active about what jobs you want filled, and make reference to the seven Army values and the seven cooperative principles.”

Finally, nothing beats word of mouth. Co-op veterans like Gonzales are valuable allies who speak the same language as transitioning vets.

“I can relate to veterans,” he says. “We shared the same sand.”