Corporate America is on a veteran hiring binge.
With the war in Afghanistan winding down, thousands of veterans are returning home to an economy that is improving but by no means robust. That’s creating a unique challenge for those coming back from years in the service and trying to readjust to civilian life.
So far, many are finding jobs thanks to a climate that is — at least for now — vocally in support of giving veterans a helping hand.
The Obama administration, which launched a nationwide campaign called Joining Forces in 2011 to connect veterans to jobs, has made it a mission to nudge companies to hire former military personnel. That includes a recent op-ed article in Fortune magazine written by First Lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, urging businesses to give veterans a chance.
Corporations have heeded the call, seeing a chance to do good and burnish their do-gooder credentials at the same time.
Retail giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has committed to giving a job to any honorably discharged veteran in his or her first 12 months off active duty. Private equity firm Blackstone Group plans to bring aboard 50,000 veterans over the next five years. More than 2,000 businesses have partnered with Joining Forces.
“Right now hiring veterans is a popular thing to talk about,” said Hayes Roth, chief marketing officer of Landor Associates, a brand consulting firm. “There’s more than charity or being nice people. It can be a smart business move.”
Those efforts have helped recently returned veterans. The jobless rate for those who served since the Sept., 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — called Gulf War-era II veterans — dropped to 7.3% in May, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s below the national average and down from 12.7% in the same period a year earlier.
The picture is less cheery in California. Veterans overall had an 8.4% jobless rate in May, better than the state average of 8.6%, according to the California Economic Development Department.
But veterans ages 20 to 34 clocked in a grim jobless rate of 15.8%, a slight improvement from 17% in May of last year. That can partly be explained by the 1.8 million veterans living in California, making the Golden State home to the nation’s highest population of former servicemen and women.
“Overall veterans, especially that group who are 18 to 34, are still disproportionately represented in terms of their struggles to find employment,” said Keith Boylan, deputy secretary of veteran services for the California Department of Veterans Affairs. “All their peers are ahead with networking and experience. They are behind the chase.”
Experts say recent good news on the veteran job front can obscure the hard road ahead that young soldiers face. Many went into the service straight after high school and never went to college. And they are competing with civilian peers who have been steadily racking up years of job experience.
Some companies are helping veterans translate their military skills into the workplace.
Delivery behemoth United Parcel Service Inc. is giving potential truck drivers a hand by trying to speed up the licensing process for service members skilled in driving commercial vehicles, spokeswoman Kara Ross said. UPS this year committed to hiring 25,000 veterans over the next five years.
In some states, for example, veterans holding a military commercial driver’s license are exempt from taking a skills test. In other states, the military license is not considered at all.
“Different states have different laws,” Ross said. “We have been very involved in trying to streamline that process.”
Many veterans also have to overcome stereotypes that soldiers return home with problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder, experts say. Some employers view them as potential liabilities.
After serving in the Marine Corps for 12 years, Roland Lolla, 34, left last year with the rank of sergeant and spent months fruitlessly searching for a job. The Glendale resident said some companies seemed nervous about his military training.
“With some places it was frightening” to them, said Lolla, who finally landed a job as a part-time UPS supervisor in January. “A lot of people don’t think we can turn it on and off, but it’s not like that at all. It’s a big misconception.”
JPMorgan Chase & Co. has put together a military recruiting team composed mostly of veterans who can better understand applicants who are veterans, said Maureen Casey, managing director of the company’s office of military and veteran affairs.
“You hear about the 99% and 1% divide — 1% of the population has served in the military and 99% of us have not,” Casey said. “There needs to be some way for both of us to cross that bridge.”
The banking giant has also developed a program called Military 101 to educate its recruiters and hiring managers in military basics. Topics include military branches, culture and the rank system. And for veterans, a program called Body Armor to Business Suit helps them transition to working in the civilian world.
Hayes, the marketing specialist, said companies that really commit to helping veterans instead of merely trumpeting their good deeds to the world can do a public service and also help their bottom line.
He pointed to Wal-Mart, which has been beset by bribery scandals overseas, as one retailer that can reap a lot of benefits from hiring veterans.
“If they can take a big step here and just do as they say as opposed to making ads about it, then it might help their image,” Hayes said. “If they make it appropriately known that ‘hiring veterans is our policy and we are not grandstanding,’ it might help.”
But it’s not as easy as just handing someone a job, said Boylan, the deputy secretary of veteran services. He called hiring veterans the current “flavor of the month” in corporate America.
Many companies eager to aid veterans have found that helping them transition and retaining them as workers is incredibly complex, Boylan said. There are some corporations that are putting extra effort into making long-lasting changes, but others are just temporarily joining a trend.
“I am well aware of how focus on veterans comes and goes,” he said.
But the current interest from companies, no matter how ephemeral, has translated into real opportunities.
The city of Burbank held its first veterans-focused job fair in February, said April Moreno of the Burbank Workforce Connection. There was enough enthusiasm from businesses to turn the fair into an annual event.
“The wars are winding down and we have a lot of troops coming back,” she said. “A lot of companies are tuned in to that.”