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Big business: Vets should start transition process early

Feb. 10, 2014 - 11:02AM   |  
Hiring veterans MWM 20140128
Jim Amos, left, a Vietnam-era Marine veteran who is a successful businessman, told lawmakers recently that the military has made strides in its transition assistance efforts, but is still focused more on keeping people in uniform, rather than helping those troops who plan to leave. (Mike Morones/Staff)
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Bigwigs at some of America’s largest corporations agree: Troops need to start planning much earlier to have a smooth and successful transition from the military to the private sector.

Representatives from Microsoft, JPMorgan Chase, Wal-Mart, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the International Franchise Association detailed a wide array of special hiring, training and education programs available to veterans at a Jan. 29 congressional hearing.

But troops will be hamstrung if they don’t know about these early in their transition process.

Sean Kelley, a senior staffing director at Microsoft, said transition planning should start 18 months prior to separation.

That would be a big contrast from the process experienced by Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., who served in the Army Medical Corps in the 1970s, he told the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

“They said, ‘Son, be sure the gate doesn’t hit you you-know-where on the way out the front door.’ Nobody said, ‘Where are you going, what are you doing, do you have a job?’ Nothing,” Roe said. “So we’ve got to be sure that ... the separating service member knows where to get these incredible ... resources.”

Among the resources that witnesses detailed for lawmakers:

Hiring Our Heroes, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce project that has held more than 660 veteran job fairs across all 50 states, resulting in jobs for more than 21,600 vets, service members and military spouses since 2011.

The 100,000 Jobs Mission, which started as an initiative of JPMorgan Chase and just 10 other companies but has since grown to 131 companies. Collectively, the companies have surpassed the initial goal of 100,000 hires by 2020 — the total stands at 117,500 — and have doubled the target to 200,000.

Wal-Mart’s Veterans Welcome Home Commitment, a pledge by the retail giant to offer a job to any honorably discharged veteran within 12 months of discharge. The company has hired nearly 30,000 vets since putting the pledge in place on Memorial Day last year.

Franchise incentives for veterans, offered by a variety of franchise brands that give discounts, fee waivers or special loan terms to service members. Since 2011, nearly 5,200 vets have started their own franchises, and franchise brands have collectively hired about 145,000 vet employees.

In addition, Microsoft’s Software and Systems Academy, a 16-week technical training course for transitioning active-duty troops, is starting up and will be available at five sites around the country by year’s end, and perhaps many more in the future, Kelley said.

The course includes both technical and job-search training and links vets with corporate sponsors, in hopes of helping them land high-paying jobs in the tech sector. Some 30,000 current troops across 474 military skill codes could be well-suited for jobs at Microsoft and similar companies, Kelley said.

After a successful pilot, the company hopes to expand the program, perhaps by offering an online version. “Now we’re looking at how fast we can replicate the model and take it nationwide,” Kelley said.

He stressed to lawmakers the importance of continued investment in veterans education, including the Post-9/11 GI Bill, and better aligning tuition assistance across the military services.

“There is no doubt that for some [veterans], the situation has started to improve. We’ve seen post-9/11 veteran unemployment fall below 10 percent,” said Ross Cohen, senior director of Hiring Our Heroes.

But one in four military spouses are unemployed, and “we have a long way to go” overall, Cohen said.

Get an early start

Business representatives and lawmakers alike repeatedly emphasized the importance of an early start to the transition process as key to improving the employment prospects of veterans.

Jim Amos, a Vietnam-era Marine Corps veteran who is currently chairman of Tasti D-Lite and Planet Smoothie, placed much of the blame for transition problems on the military.

“All the infrastructure within the military is designed to focus on [getting] people to stay in,” Amos said. “There’s very little discussion of people leaving. And when the decision is made to leave, internally — if people are going to be perfectly honest — it’s almost as if their back is turned on someone who has decided they’re not going to have the same goal.”

The Defense Department has made changes to its transition programs, but those at the hearing called for further modifications.

Maureen Casey, managing director of military and veterans affairs for JPMorgan, said the military needs to involve private-sector companies in the transition process sooner, so that they can recruit, and service members can land jobs, prior to separation. Lawmakers on the committee echoed that view.

While participants at the hearing found no shortage of problems related to veteran employment, Cohen said he sees a bright future.

“I am cautiously optimistic,” he said. “The folks who are on this panel here represent some of the largest, most influential companies and associations in the country, and the experiences of the past two years ... can’t be lost.”

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