BAY LAKE -- First Lady Michelle Obama called on private companies to follow examples of Walt Disney Co. by hiring military veterans, saying Thursday at Walt Disney World that employers need to tell them, "we're going to have your backs."
Obama, whose "Joining Forces" initiative is aimed at helping military veterans re-enter private life, told an estimated 500 representatives of local and national companies gathered at Disney's Boardwalk Resort that companies such as Disney, AT&T, Walmart and Starbucks have signed on with commitments to hire veterans by the thousands, and small- and medium-size businesses should follow their examples.
At the Disney-sponsored conference, called the "Veterans Institute," she said Joining Forces has helped 380,000 veterans get jobs in two years.
"That's outstanding. But it's not enough," she said in an 11-minute address, the keynote speech in a daylong conference of workshops and seminars on hiring veterans. "We need you all to really dig deep. We need you to double down."
Her challenges are rooted in concerns over chronically high unemployment numbers for military veterans. Their unemployment rate nationally has stagnated at 10 percent, while the nation's overall unemployment has fallen to about 7 percent.
In giving a veteran a job, Obama said, "You're giving one more American hero a chance to continue serving his country. You're giving that hero's family security of a steady paycheck. You're sending a clear message that we honor others who sacrifice for us, and when they come home, we're going to have your backs."
Among other speakers Thursday, Walt Disney Co. Chairman and CEO Bob Iger hearkened to the pro-veteran hiring efforts that followed World War II, which he said Walt Disney was passionate toward.
"Those veterans were given priority. It was fitting. It was right," Iger said. "They deserve to find open doors and opportunities. And with your help, they will. I'm not sure how many companies it takes to create a national movement, but we have 400 companies here today and I'd call that a pretty good start."
There appeared to be widespread agreement among the employers at the conference, ranging from national companies like Google and Darden to local companies such as Florida Hospital and the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners, to make hiring veterans a priority.
But the practical reality of finding and matching vets and jobs is complicated, said conference attendee Timothy Green, a retired Air Force colonel who is now director of strategic outreach for the U.S. Department of Labor's Veterans' Employment and Training Services.
"We're trying to make those connections," Green said. "The connection is the hard part."
Many veterans come back with broad, military-trained qualities such as discipline and innovation under pressure, but military resumes do not translate well to civilian job-market needs, he said. Sometimes, they must be willing to go where the jobs are, rather than home.
Carl Ludecke, a former U.S. Marine and now vice president of Charlie Johnson Builder in Mount Dora, came to represent the Florida Homebuilders Association.
"It's the job skills a lot of veterans are coming out with. There are a lot of veterans from support units that are lot more computer literate and they are doing a lot of other things administratively that they can fall into things. But the foot soldier, it's a little difficult sometimes for them. What I try to do is as they get out to get their GI bill going and try to get at least a two-year degree, and to transition through education into more of a civilian life," Ludecke said.