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Winning wars on two fronts

In this Thursday, March 7, 2019, photo visitors to the Pittsburgh veterans job fair meet with recruiters at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Most of the news cycle is focused on the war in Ukraine, while America is fighting a war on the homefront that is hindering economic growth and our global competitiveness. Winning both could rest on the shoulders of the men and women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.

A decade has passed since we wrote this OpEd in Politico entitled “Fighting to Hire Veterans.”  At the time Hiring Our Heroes, the nonprofit at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce we helped start, was on a crusade to get companies to hire them. Ten years later, the term “fighting to hire veterans” is still apropos, but the meaning has changed.

In 2012, veteran unemployment sat near an all-time high of 12 percent and finding a job was particularly troubling for younger Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans aged 18-24 who faced a staggering 30 percent jobless rate. Fortunately today, the circumstances are vastly different. There is less need for a crusade to get the private sector to recognize the value that veterans bring to the workplace; in fact, monthly and annual veteran unemployment rates are consistently lower than their civilian counterparts, hitting 2.4%, one of its lowest points in the history of the all volunteer force during March.

President Biden’s State of the Union Address last month failed to address the fundamental problem with job creation. In the midst of advanced and emerging technologies, extensive supply chain disruptions, and the recent passage of an infrastructure bill which will create millions of additional jobs, the skills gap in America has widened — now a full three times higher than in 2012.

As companies and industries fight the war for human talent, they’re battling to attract employees who possess the requisite hard and soft skills to do the job -– something transitioning service members have in spades. This paradigm shift and the unprecedented challenges America faces with 11 million unfilled jobs present an extraordinary opportunity for our military community. Now is the time to redefine the playing field for transitioning service members entering the workforce while simultaneously addressing the massive skills gap hindering our economic growth. 

While post-secondary education is still a strong choice for many service members, in 2022 the Department of Labor is stressing alternative training that does not require a four year degree.  Options like the Department of Defense’s Skillbridge and DOL’s Apprenticeship programs provide a route for non-degreed service members that avoids both the risk of diploma mills and potentially crushing student debt while giving younger veterans the ability to start earning money immediately.

As a bonus for employers, many of the skills that don’t require a four-year degree are in high demand. Experiences and capabilities honed by military service are often directly applicable to many high tech and skilled manufacturing jobs. Veterans and military spouses can provide a steady pipeline of trained, employment-ready talent for a market that is sorely in need of it.

Military spouses are also well-positioned to provide value. Project- or contract-based tech jobs that allow remote presence and offer flexible hours are perfect for spouses, who can leverage them to gain skills and adjust their workload as they see fit. Such flexibility is crucial for a military lifestyle, where families move on average every two years and are subject to unexpected separations through deployments and ongoing training.

A few key shifts in how employers approach military hiring could yield tremendous benefits both for our economy and our nation’s heroes.

First, we must increase public-private partnerships to better connect upskilled and reskilled talent with good companies. There has been an explosion in training programs for veterans, providing valuable and free certifications that companies otherwise might pay top dollar for their employees to obtain. 

This creates a competitive advantage for military talent; yet when they are finished with these programs, they are often still left to find employment on their own. We must close the gap by creating pipelines that propel veterans to meaningful career opportunities. 

Second, companies that want to attract veterans must improve their strategy and communications approach to military talent. They will need to be more aggressive in their pursuit of those with proven leadership and employment experience. and change their tactics in response to this new reality. 

“Committing to hire veterans and military spouses” will not suffice in a saturated job market that essentially equals “full employment” for veterans. Companies that want to hire veterans and spouses must fight for them. 

With 20 years of collective experience helping veterans and military spouses find meaningful careers it is heartening to see the drop in unemployment, but we can do better. Enlisted veterans and spouses without degrees can and should be earning top dollar along with their civilian peers.

Herein also lies the potential to effectively model veteran and military spouse upskilling programs and apply them to other diversity groups seeking career opportunities and a better way of life. In the process, we may also solve for an ever-widening skills gap that is undermining America’s strength as a global leader. 

Kevin Schmiegel is a 20-year Marine Veteran and former nonprofit CEO who now serves as a strategic advisor to purpose-driven organizations.  Laura Schmiegel is the Senior Vice President, Strategic Partnerships at Orion Talent. She previously founded and held leadership positions with multiple military and veteran nonprofits.

Tags Biden Joe Biden skills gap veterans workforce

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