By Adam Ashton, The News Tribune
Sgt. 1st Class Mitchel Watson figured he wouldn't have to go far to find work when he retires from the Army next year. All signs pointed to him joining the ranks of private contractors at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Watson broadened his outlook Wednesday after spending time with 250 Puget Sound-area business representatives eager to hire military veterans. Suddenly, Watson sees opportunities he didn't know were available to career soldiers like him.
"If you told me Microsoft wanted to hire veterans, I'd say, 'What, they're making a new "Call of Duty?"'" Mitchel, 42, said, referring to the popular combat video game.
Wednesday's event was a two-way street for service members and the employers who visited the base.
Soldiers learned tips for their post-Army job hunt while employers took advantage of activities that gave them a better feel for the military. They went to firing ranges, medical evacuation drills and exercises that showed off expensive military vehicles, such as eight-wheeled Strykers.
The intent was to give employers a sense of the responsibility and leadership that goes into a day's work at the base.
"You can imagine what they do, but when one of them teaches you how to fire a gun or talks about a maintenance glitch in-theater, you get a much better picture," said Brad McGuire, business services manager for the Employment Security Department.
"We need to put them to work," he said.
Hire America's Heroes, a Seattle nonprofit that tries to link service members with work after they leave the military, organized the tour. Boeing, Microsoft, Starbucks and many more were on hand.
The nonprofit's push is one of several efforts in the state aimed at bringing down the unemployment rate for veterans.
This week, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a bill that ensures military veterans won't have to repeat training to gain certification for certain civilian careers, such as land surveyors and security guards. Last month, she signed a bill that eased requirements for service members to move into medical professions if they have relevant experience from the military.
The governor also signed a law that allows private employers to set up criteria to give veterans hiring preferences. Retired Maj. Gen. James Collins, a founder of Hire America's Heroes, said it's a bill that could be replicated in other states.
A March report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have a slightly higher unemployment rate than the general public. Last year, 11.5 percent of those men and women were unemployed, compared with 9.4 percent for non-veterans and 8.7 percent of other veterans.
Events like Wednesday's mixer at Lewis-McChord could give both sides a better idea of what to expect when the time comes to start a job search or make a hire.
Lt. Col. Gregory Hawkins, for example, challenged preconceptions that service members thrive only in top-down hierarchies.
"We're not a bunch of automatons," said Harkins, who commands Lewis-McChord's 4th Battalion, 23 Infantry Regiment. "We are a thinking force."
Recruiters encouraged service members to network heavily more than a year before they leave their military jobs, both by contacting friends who've already left the military and by setting up informational interviews with employers.
They also suggested that service members consider presenting themselves in a less formal manner when they're trying to find work because showing up for an interview in a suit and tie can put off employers dressed in jeans.
That's one military characteristic that can give a civilian the wrong idea about a veteran's personality, recruiters said.
"You can't be passive in this job market today," said Joe Wallis, a Marine veteran who is Microsoft's program manager for military recruiting. "The veterans are a small percentage of the workforce, and you need to be out there networking."