Shifting the approach to solve veteran unemployment

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While many Fortune 100 companies have answered the first lady's call to action by making military hiring a priority for their companies, we cannot expect to move the needle on veteran unemployment with large employers alone. We need America's job growth engine, the 27 million small businesses that fuel our economy, to consider this talent pool even more aggressively. And we need innovative solutions that help transitioning servicemembers make informed decisions about career opportunities.
 
If we got just 5 percent of those small businesses in America who have never employed a veteran, to hire just one — it would be a game-changer. Smaller companies, in a lot of cases, are the perfect fit for younger veterans who are used to leading or working in teams. And when a small business learns the value of a veteran, they are likely to hire a second or third.
 
But this isn’t just about getting the private sector to do more. Veterans and transitioning servicemembers need to meet employers halfway. We must give them the tools they need to develop a personal brand and talk about their military service in a clear and compelling way to human resources managers.
 
At the end of my 20-year career in the Marine Corps, I served as the head of enlisted assignments monitors, 60 senior enlisted HR managers responsible for the assignment and retention of 170,000 Marines worldwide. Every year we spoke to thousands of younger Marines exiting the Corps. It’s no surprise that a vast majority of them were more concerned about where they were going as opposed to what they were going to do next. Many make a decision of the heart, returning to hometowns and oftentimes to rural communities where jobs are scarce.
 
We have seen this problem up close and personal at more than 460 of our hiring fairs across the country where more than 70 percent of younger veterans in attendance say they would not relocate for a job. We need to change this mindset and point them to where the jobs are.
 
There is a massive skills gap hindering America’s economic recovery and hurting our global competitiveness. Millions of jobs are going unfilled because we lack a trained workforce, and there are industries like energy, healthcare, transportation, information technology and manufacturing that are becoming desperate to fill high-skilled, good-paying careers with talented people. There is no better place to start than the men and women who have served in the armed forces.
 
Many programs are designed to help transitioning servicemembers apply their military occupations to specific jobs in the civilian workforce. But not every square peg belongs in a square hole. An infantryman who led a squad in combat and managed millions of dollars worth of equipment should not be told that all he can do in the private sector is work as a security guard. Just like a motor transport operator shouldn’t be encouraged to get a commercial driver’s license as his or her only route to civilian employment.
 
We are thrilled that more than 1,000 companies have hired 18,400 veterans and military spouses from our job fairs in less than two years — with nearly half of the companies that hired being small businesses. But we have a responsibility to build on our grassroots success and do more.
 
The first lady has been a leading voice in calling for the business community to step up and hire. We have seen firsthand in the last couple of years that business is listening. Now is the time to ensure the level of commitment leads to more hires by better connecting our veterans to the most meaningful employment opportunities available — to companies both large and small. It is a national security imperative for our country.
 
Schmiegel, a retired lieutenant colonel is executive director of Hiring Our Heroes at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.