Looking to bolster the pool of trained natural gas industry workers while also reaching out to U.S. military veterans, DTE Energy has rolled out a seven-week pilot program that’s preparing Michigan veterans for jobs as maintenance fitter apprentices, which, if successful could be a model for programs nationwide.

Detroit-based DTE Energy acknowledged that the job prospects for American soldiers coming home from tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq are often bleak, adding that Michigan has the highest veteran unemployment rate in the country at 30%, with some Michigan-based military units nearing 40%.

Dubbed Natural Gas Boot Camp, DTE Energy said it is hoping to change the trend of high veteran unemployment. “Our veterans are a highly-skilled, tough-minded, physically fit group of people, and the government has already made a significant investment in their training,” said Bob Richard, DTE Energy senior vice president, Gas Operations. “They’re a tremendous resource, but despite the unemployment statistics, they’ve been difficult to recruit.”

DTE Energy’s operating units include Detroit Edison, an electric utility serving 2.1 million customers in southeastern Michigan, MichCon, a natural gas utility serving 1.2 million customers in Michigan and other nonutility, energy businesses focused on gas storage and pipelines, unconventional gas production, power and industrial projects, and energy trading.

Natural Gas Boot Camp was developed last spring in meetings between DTE Energy and Brigadier Gen. Michael Stone of the Michigan National Guard. While the utility has been trying to boost its veteran recruitment, the Michigan National Guard, with support from Gov. Rick Snyder, has been looking for solutions to the state’s veteran unemployment that could be applied nationwide.

“Training veterans for maintenance fitter apprentice positions seemed like a natural place to start,” Richard said. “These are tough jobs and veterans, in addition to their skills, possess many of the other qualities needed such as physical fortitude and strong determination.”

While much has been made recently of the jobs boom brought on by the shale oil and gas development bonanza, utility, pipeline and other segments of the industry are also looking for qualified applicants as the current workforce gets older.

DTE Energy worked on the Boot Camp curriculum and brought in partners to build the project, including Local 223 of the Utility Workers Union of America, Consumers Energy, Alpena Community College, Schoolcraft Community College, the Center for Energy Workforce Development and the Michigan Workforce Intelligence Network.

In the first camp, more than 20 veterans began training last month at Camp Grayling, a Michigan National Guard training facility. They have completed four weeks of classes taught by Alpena Community College instructors in Grayling, followed by three weeks of hands-on instruction at Camp Grayling. A second Boot Camp, sponsored by Consumers Energy, is running concurrently in the metro Detroit area.

DTE Energy noted that students were selected and pre-screened by the National Guard based on their skills, experience and aptitude for the job. While there is no guarantee of employment, the utility said students are expected to be well-qualified and ready to start careers in the energy industry upon graduation.

“This is not just about finding a job for Michigan’s veterans; it’s about helping our heroes enter into meaningful careers,” Stone said. “While our civilian population spent the time right after high school seeking higher education and developing careers, these men and women spent their time fighting the wars of this nation. Our goal is to build and test drive a program that will benefit veterans and employers here in Michigan and throughout the country.”

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