This past March, Daniel Brewer took a walk that was significantly safer than those I imagine he took while stationed on various bases in Afghanistan and serving in the U.S. Navy. But it was no less meaningful for his future. That is because the stage he crossed wasn’t in battle, but in an auditorium at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. Daniel was one of the 11 service members who were the first to complete the Get Skills to Work program and receive an advanced manufacturing training certificate. A few weeks ago, GE Aviation hired him as an electrical technician.

I’ve traveled all over the United States and the world, spending countless hours performing with my band, raising funds for the Gary Sinise Foundation’s many unique programs and meeting and talking with so many of our nation’s soldiers and veterans, like Daniel Brewer. They are a diverse group but I have generally found that they are united by their love of country and their desire to contribute. They want to support their families and continue to serve their country and their local communities. Yet too often, our veterans struggle to translate their military skills and experience into meaningful civilian employment. While in the service, Daniel, for instance, worked on military aircraft and high-grade machinery.

On the face of it, Daniel had all basic skillsets — the technical proficiency — related to manufacturing. The only thing he was missing was formal job training to match his abilities with the specific needs of an employer. The result was that when he returned home, he, like so many other veterans, floated from job to job, always in doubt and unable to build a career and future. Many fare worse — despite risking their lives to defend America, they are unable to find work of any kind. There are 1.9 million unemployed veterans.

It’s unacceptable, and not only because we’re failing to honor the service of those who sacrificed so much to protect us: at a time when we need to bolster the economy and improve American competitiveness, there are an estimated 600,000 advanced manufacturing jobs across America unfilled because employers cannot find qualified applicants.

More than 82 percent of manufacturers report they cannot find people to fill their skilled production jobs. Veterans are a natural fit for these jobs. America has the most prepared, most technically advanced military the world has ever seen, and our veterans have the temperament, discipline and the training to be leaders whatever the call of duty and wherever they call home. Similarly, any business, large or small, that has hired veterans knows that they are often ideal employees. The challenge is ensuring they have the right skills for the right jobs. Making that match is the right thing to do for our veterans. It’s also good business — and good for our economy.

The Get Skills to Work coalition brings together companies, nonprofits like the Gary Sinise Foundation, military leaders and academic institutions to help close that skills gap through training and by empowering employers with tools to recruit, onboard and mentor veterans. The program just added 190 new manufacturers, including many small- and medium-sized businesses. The goal is to train and match 100,000 veterans by 2015, and I hope other manufacturers join the cause. As they do, it is important to remember what makes the program successful. It is very much a community-based solution. To ensure that the skills training actually meets the immediate needs of employers, local businesses help develop the curriculum. Local employers visit the classrooms to discuss existing and future jobs and career opportunities. The approach is not one-size-fits-all — rather, it targets the actual needs of local, advanced manufacturing employers. The skills our veterans obtain are immediately applicable.
I’ve seen the power of community — be it a neighborhood or a network of employers — to create meaningful opportunity for veterans in almost every program in which I’ve been involved. When we come together as a community to help those who’ve served our country so bravely, we are not just providing an education, a job or a house, as important as those are. We are helping build the future for which veterans like Daniel Brewer fought. We are providing the chance to do at home what our service members do so selflessly in all parts of the world: strengthen America. We can never do enough for those who willingly wear the cloth of our nation and go into harm’s way in freedom’s defense. But we can always do more and our veterans deserve our support. We’re grateful for their service, and more than ever, we need their skills.

Sinise is an actor/humanitarian, founder of the Gary Sinise Foundation, and a GE partner in the Get Skills to Work program. He is also co-host of this year’s National Memorial Day Concert.