Enlisting Companies to Invest in Veterans

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With the drawdown of America's major post-9/11 overseas engagements, nearly a million of the country's finest men and women will be leaving the armed forces and joining the economy. With that in mind, we want to focus on the long- term futures of our veterans. Last year in these pages we stressed the importance of giving them an opportunity to pursue not just a job but a fulfilling career. The distinction is significant, and particularly important for our newest veterans.

These men and women took the oath in the wake of 9/11 knowing they likely would be asked to deploy and fight for their country. They have earned recognition as America's "New Greatest Generation." Since the terrorist attack in 2001, well over two million of them have served and left the military to enter the workforce. Nearly a million more will join them in the next few years.

While the unemployment rate for returning veterans is now in line with national averages, the numbers don't show the rate of underemployment. Many veterans have had to accept low-wage, dead-end jobs that may pay their bills but don't fully tap their skills or allow them to engage in fulfilling careers.

American Corporate Partners (ACP), a nationwide nonprofit organization, engages with veterans in these circumstances every day, seeking to connect them with experienced business professionals for one-on-one mentoring. Those who volunteer to serve in ACP's Veteran Mentoring Program work with a returning member of the service for a full calendar year to help him or her enter and succeed in the civilian workplace. More than 3,000 veterans have completed the program in the past few years—some are going back to school, some are starting their own businesses, and some have found meaningful employment at companies throughout the country or are seeking it. And today, 2,000 more are being mentored. This is an insufficient number given the magnitude of the need.

Responding to the challenge requires leadership from private business. And like most aspects of leadership, the tone needs to start at the top. In the past several years, a number of American companies have demonstrated impressive support for our veterans, not only by hiring large numbers of them, but by hiring them with the goal of developing them into future leaders.

These companies offer their veteran employees not just full-time positions, but also on-the-job training, support with educational endeavors, advancement opportunities and a chance to progress as their skills increase. They know that such assistance often translates into higher employee retention. Typically, their companies' human resources departments keep track of the men and women who went through the program to track the percentage who are still working at the company, as well as how many have completed training programs and advanced in their careers.

But there also are companies that ignore America's obligation to our veterans, as well as companies that hire large numbers but don't do so with the commitment necessary to enable these veterans to build a lasting future. These latter companies may report impressive numbers of veterans hired in a year and thus enjoy a public-relations success, but the veterans they hire often end up in part-time, seasonal or dead-end jobs with little training and few opportunities to advance. Over time, these men and women find themselves left behind as their counterparts at other companies move up the ranks of civilian leadership.

To be sure, a low-level job is better than no job at all. But our returning veterans deserve more, and they are eager to show that they merit more. Indeed, they aren't looking for charity, they're looking for an opportunity to demonstrate their skills, work ethic, scope for initiative and willingness to work hard at work worth doing. And, yes, they do want an opportunity to build a lasting career.

Our nation's business leaders are in a unique position to provide these opportunities. As always, the message needs to come from the top, through direction from CEOs and encouragement from members of boards of directors. America's servicemen and women are coming home, and we need to do more than simply thank them for their service. Let's invest in their future.

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