Make vets a priority

Western Pennsylvania needs a regional strategy to help veterans find jobs, argues veterans advocate AL MERCER

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More than 1 million active duty personnel are scheduled to join the ranks of America's 22 million military veterans by 2017, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Many plan to return or relocate to Western Pennsylvania, as Pittsburgh is known as one of the best cities in the country for veterans to live.

In fact, Pennsylvania has the fourth highest concentration of veterans and the eighth largest population of women veterans in the country, with Allegheny County having the most Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in Pennsylvania. It is estimated that 207,331 veterans live in the Pittsburgh area.

This gives our region access to a workforce of men and women who are highly trained, uniquely skilled and mission-focused. Yet veterans remain an underutilized asset in our workplaces and our communities. Nationally, the unemployment rate last year for veterans age 25-34 was 10.4 percent -- 2.3 points higher than non-veterans of the same age group -- and twice that high for younger veterans.

To the returning veteran looking for a job, translating military service to civilian employment can be confusing. Yes, there are many national programs, company initiatives, career fairs and employment services geared toward hiring veterans. But what's needed in Western Pennsylvania is a coordinated, streamlined regional effort.

An example of how our region's approach is not working now:

John served nine years in the U.S. Army as a military policeman in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He holds a bachelor's degree in criminology with a minor in information assurance and will soon be awarded a master's degree in homeland security/legal studies.

John searched for months through want ads, applied online to companies hiring veterans and worked with numerous local employment programs and veteran service organizations to find a job that matched his skills. (Security management would be a good fit.) But, he said, "I could never make it [past] the online applications or, when I did, employers were more interested in talking about what I did 'over there' instead of what I can offer in their workplace."

Of the thousands of local veterans we serve, we have heard similar stories from those who had been enlisted personnel, non-commissioned officers, even high-ranking officers such as colonels and major generals.

Hiring veterans is not just the right thing to do. Hiring veterans is good business.

Of course, there are tax breaks and new compliance regulations (companies must employ 8 percent veterans to qualify for federal contracts). But there also are volumes of academic research in business, psychology, sociology and decision-making that strongly link characteristics generally representative of veterans to enhanced performance and organizational advantage in competitive, dynamic business environments.

Hanging a "We Hire Veterans" sign on the door is not enough. Our leaders and business owners need to be made aware of the culture, skills and experiences of veterans in order to properly attract, evaluate, hire and manage them.

Individual companies, such as Google, Home Depot, AT&T, PNC Bank and BNY Mellon, have found that their model veteran-hiring programs have resulted in increased customer satisfaction and improved productivity. They have capitalized on the highly desirable characteristics veterans exemplify -- trustworthiness, resiliency and commitment.

Other parts of the country, such as upstate New York and Jacksonville, Fla., have developed effective initiatives to help veterans while improving regional economic competitiveness.

For instance, the Institute for Veterans and Military Families based at Syracuse University has published a "Guide to Leading Practices" in the employment of veterans and a "Business Case for Hiring Veterans" based on 40 years of academic research. The institute also helped create a website, "Veteran Employment Leading Practices: Tools for Engaging Talent," and it teaches business executives, managers and human resource professionals how to leverage veteran talent.

The ranks of unemployed veterans in Western Pennsylvania are growing. Now is the time for regional leaders from the public, private and nonprofit sectors to connect all our veterans, particularly post-9/11 veterans, directly with local employment opportunities.

Here's what they need to do: 1) educate employers so they clearly understand military culture, experiences and occupations; 2) identify employment needs that fit the skills and experience of veterans; 3) reduce duplication of services and mixed messages to veterans seeking employment; 4) create well-publicized points of entry for veterans seeking jobs; and 5) provide educational resources and training for businesses that want to hire veterans.

To be truly successful, this strategy also must include measurable objectives with deadlines for reporting tangible results. We can talk about hiring veterans -- or we can actually do it.

Western Pennsylvania has developed regional strategies to attract and prepare young professionals for careers in the high tech, life sciences and energy sectors. Why wouldn't we do the same for the men and women who have served our country?

Al Mercer is executive director of Veterans Leadership Program of Western Pennsylvania Inc., a nonprofit agency that provides housing, employment and other services to an estimated 5,000 local veterans (www.neverforgetvets.org).


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