Military veterans are an untapped resource for suppliers and automakers

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DETROIT — Joshua Kapusta’s journey from the engine room of a Coast Guard cutter to the engine room at Ford Motor Co. is a bit unusual.

But for suppliers and automakers looking to hire engineers and tech-savvy employees to keep their product development operations running smoothly, Kapusta represents an almost untapped resource: military veterans.

The Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency ranks the state’s veteran-friendly employers as gold, silver and bronze based on the number of vets they hire. Just two auto industry suppliers, Roush Enterprises and Prestige Engineering, in suburban Detroit, have earned a gold rating. General Motors is the only automaker ranked gold.

Kapusta, 35, who joined Roush in September, is one of nearly 50 veterans recruited by John Gardner since last year. Gardner, himself a veteran, is Roush’s manager of veterans initiatives and diversity hiring programs. He says one reason the auto industry hasn’t heavily recruited veterans for engineering, fabrication and testing jobs is that many branches of the military don’t adequately prepare vets for civilian jobs after they leave active duty.

Translating military experience into civilian language on a resume, for instance, is a particular roadblock.

“If more companies had a veteran attached to their recruiting teams, someone who can look at a military resume and decipher those things for hiring managers, 9 times out of 10, it’s going to work out because the vet is going to come in hungry,” he said.

New-car dealers have been hiring vets because of their skills in repairing vehicles and in logistics, which is useful in parts departments that sell through many channels.

Kapusta is a little different.

He’s the first veteran with an engineering degree recruited by Gardner. Kapusta, while still in the Coast Guard and stationed in Detroit, earned engineering degrees from the University of Michigan and Wayne State University. His title at Roush is test engineer.

While in the Coast Guard and assigned to a ship, Kapusta was in charge of the vessel’s water, engine, emissions and air-conditioning systems. Each ship has a small machine shop, and Kapusta often had to fabricate parts to make repairs. “When you are underway, you have to be pretty self-sufficient,” he said.

Unlike many auto industry engineers, Kapusta says he did not grow up obsessed with cars. Instead, he became infatuated with all things mechanical.

“I am a gearhead but not necessarily a car gearhead,” he said. “I love taking things apart and figuring out how they work. And that’s everything, doesn’t matter what kind of machine it is. If I can take it apart, figure it out, improve it, and soup it up, that’s a lot of fun.”

Kapusta is a contract worker assigned to Ford Motor Co. and works alongside Ford engineers in one of the company’s dynamometer cells on its product development campus in Dearborn, Mich. Landing the job at Roush was the culmination of networking and a little luck. He met Gardner at a job fair and stayed in touch.

Gardner felt Kapusta had the right skills and demeanor to work at Roush but did not ask him to interview for a job until the right position opened up, a strategy Kapusta said was very important to him.

“He took a look at my resume and said, ‘You have the stuff we are looking for, and I am going to find you the right job.’ That was the important thing. It wasn’t, ‘I’m going to find you a job,’ which a lot of places do,” Kapusta said.

Seven months passed. Then, one day in August, Kapusta called Gardner to inquire about a job he saw posted at Roush. The hiring manager for that position happened to be in Gardner’s office while Gardner was talking about Kapusta. A quick phone interview led to a job offer.

Gardner says the appeal of veterans is that they are very process oriented, although he acknowledged not all of them are a good fit. Nonetheless, he said vets are hard workers. They believe in teamwork. And most importantly, he said, they are extremely loyal and not likely to job-hop from one company to the next.

He added: “Once that vet gets that opportunity, they are not going anywhere. They are not job-hoppers who will jump at another job for an extra $5,000 a year. They are like, ‘This place gave me an opportunity and took a chance on me. I am going to prove to them what I am worth.’ ”

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