Editor’s Note:  This story appeared as a guest column in the July 20 issue of The St. Paul Pioneer Press and Twincities.com.

Marine Master Gunnery Sergeant Jose Chavarria had a very serious assignment: keep his Boeing CH-46 helicopters functioning properly so the pilots could keep the choppers, and their payloads of up to 24 Marines, in the air.


Through a highly specialized fast-track sector-training program in sheet-metal fabrication at Anoka Technical College, Chavarria was able to transfer his 24 years of Marine Corps training and experience into a manufacturing skill set at EJ Ajax.

It was risky business. Mortar and missile attacks were frequent and deadly. Losses had mounted throughout the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. But there was no other practical way to transport troops, weapons and supplies to and from the base.

Stationed at the Al Asad Airbase in the Afghan province of Al Anbar, Chavarria had become an expert on the CH-46 Boeing Sea Knight. He received extensive Marine Corps training in the operation and maintenance of the chopper’s computerized control and navigation systems, power plants, weapons, communication systems, diagnostic systems, fuel systems, and other critical components of the tandem rotor, 3,600 horsepower, 6-ton behemoth.

After surviving numerous combat engagements without loss of life or limb, Chavarria retired from the U.S. Marine Corps in 2010. He landed in Fridley. His next objective: find work. Better yet, find a career. Through a highly specialized fast-track sector-training program in sheet-metal fabrication at Anoka Technical College, Chavarria was able to transfer his 24 years of Marine Corps training and experience into a manufacturing skill set that positioned him for good job offers upon graduation.

There was no need for Chavarria to pound the pavement looking for work — company recruiters came to him. Anoka Tech hosts reverse job fairs where company recruiters present opportunities to top-performing graduates.

Chavarria now programs complex, large-scale metal forming machinery the size of a school bus for EJ Ajax of Fridley. His primary reason for choosing EJ Ajax? A safe working environment.

Chavarria’s story is not unique. Job-seekers with military technical training and experience are finding that employment doors are open, and for good reason.

U.S. Armed Forces training is arguably the best in the world. The dollar value of high-level military technical training is difficult to measure — certainly in the hundreds of thousands. Moreover, military training specialists are very good at evaluating technical aptitude. Troops unsuited to technical duty are assigned elsewhere.

Many Minnesota companies, manufacturers in particular, need the skills, the discipline, the attention to detail, and the teamwork abilities that high-caliber military veterans possess. My company is fully aware of the rules of engagement when recruiting veterans and we compete vigorously. In the past four years, our company has hired 16 vets. These employees have excelled. Several have already advanced within the company.

At the same time, U.S. manufacturing has been building steam. The Purchasing Managers Index, a measure of manufacturing activity, reached a four-year high in June. Conditions are ideal for companies like EJ Ajax to expand. We will need good people. Orders are: Hire more vets.

However, like many Minnesota companies, EJ Ajax struggles to find top candidates for open positions. Statewide unemployment for June is near 4 percent, well below the 6.3 percent national rate. The pool of skilled workers is smaller than it has been in months. Nationally, an estimated 3 million jobs are going unfilled for lack of qualified workers.

Returning military veterans offer hope. Troop drawdowns in the Middle East are nearing completion, and many returning veterans will enter or re-enter the job market.

That’s good news for companies like EJ Ajax who value veterans as employees. Competition for the best of the best will be fierce. Job offers will include excellent pay, benefits, paid vacations, and advancement opportunities. That may not be enough.

EJ Ajax Human Resources/Operations Manager Curt Jasper, a retired U.S. Army Command Sergeant Major, has been in the recruiting trenches to fill open positions.

Using insider’s knowledge of veteran-specific career issues, he has guided his company through a string of successful hires and will spearhead his company’s recruiting efforts in 2014. Among the recruiting tactics EJ Ajax will apply:


We have six active guard and reserve members on our team. They drill one weekend each month plus two weeks per year. This training commitment provides guardsmen with a fantastic opportunity to hone their leadership, decision making, problem solving and team building skills.

Guardsmen use this training to better themselves as soldiers and as company colleagues. They bring that valuable knowledge back to EJ Ajax.


Returning veterans often choose 18- to 24-month technical programs over traditional university degrees, which can require four or more years to complete.

In addition to Anoka Tech, EJ Ajax maintains close relationships with Hennepin Technical College and Dunwoody College of Technology. The company participates in the development of specialized programs at these colleges, which then produce graduates with ideal skill sets.


Tuition reimbursement is a common recruiting tool. It’s helpful for sure, but often inconvenient for veterans who lack the up-front cash needed to get enrolled.

EJ Ajax solves this cash-flow problem by pre-paying up to $5,000 of tuition per year for qualifying colleagues. This solution helps our vets maximize their GI benefits.


EJ Ajax often puts trainees to work right away, offering attractive hourly pay rates, flexible hours and a safe work environment.

Plus the company provides trainees with four-year apprenticeships with hands-on mentoring by top manufacturing pros. Certified apprenticeships are available in tool and die making, sheet metal fabrication, punch press and machine operation, and maintenance.


Although Fortune 1000 companies are often perceived to have deeper pockets, growing companies like EJ Ajax have invented ideas that attract and retain top candidates.

Among them:

  • Top performers can get noticed faster in a small company. Advancement is given as soon as the employee is ready.
  • Growing companies rely on every employee. Personal career development is therefore encouraged, provided for, mentored, and rewarded. “Esprit de corps” is very high.
  • Owners and managers get to know each employee personally. The family-style atmosphere keeps morale high.
  • No absentee management — company owners and managers work on-site. They want a safe, clean work environment just like employees do.
  • Families come first. Needed time off for family reasons is granted whenever possible.


EJ Ajax was a third-year exhibitor on July 9 at Minnesota’s largest Veterans Career Fair at the Earle Brown Heritage Center in Brooklyn Center. The company invested heavily in preparation for this job fair.

The expense and effort was necessary; there was even a waiting list this year for companies to exhibit at this fair. Many exhibitors were large companies — 3M, Cargill, FedEx, Land O’Lakes, Xcel Energy. EJ Ajax colleagues who are veterans including Chavarria were at the job fair to discuss employment opportunities with job-seeking vets.

Our efforts paid off.

We scheduled appointments and tours of our plant with 20 top level veterans, each with 4- to 20-plus years of service. With all these high-caliber candidates available, selecting the highest-qualified among them for our four open positions will not be easy.

Our company is very fortunate to be in a position to recruit such fine job candidates here in Minnesota. We will look forward to additional opportunities to recruit veterans of the United States Armed Forces.