Companies step up efforts to hire returning veterans

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Corporate America is on a veteran hiring binge.

With the war in Afghanistan winding down, thousands of veterans are returning home to an economy that is improving but by no means robust. That's creating a unique challenge for those coming back from years in the service and trying to readjust to civilian life.

So far, many are finding jobs thanks to a climate that is -- at least for now -- vocally in support of giving veterans a helping hand.

The Obama administration, which launched a nationwide campaign called Joining Forces in 2011 to connect veterans to jobs, has made it a mission to nudge companies to hire former military personnel. That includes a recent op-ed article in Fortune magazine written by first lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, urging businesses to give veterans a chance.

Corporations have heeded the call, seeing a chance to do good and burnish their do-gooder credentials.

Retail giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has committed to giving a job to any honorably discharged veteran in his or her first 12 months off active duty. Private equity firm Blackstone Group plans to bring aboard 50,000 veterans over the next five years. More than 2,000 businesses have partnered with Joining Forces.

"Right now hiring veterans is a popular thing to talk about," said Hayes Roth, chief marketing officer of Landor Associates, a brand consulting firm. "There's more than charity or being nice people. It can be a smart business move."

Those efforts have helped recently returned veterans. The jobless rate for those who served since the Sept., 11, 2001, terrorist attacks -- called Gulf War-era II veterans -- dropped to 7.3 percent in May, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's below the national average and down from 12.7 percent in the same period a year earlier.

Putting skills to work

Experts say recent good news on the veteran job front can obscure the hard road ahead that young soldiers face. Many went into the service straight after high school and never went to college. And they are competing with civilian peers who have been steadily racking up years of job experience.

Some companies are helping veterans translate their military skills into the workplace.

Delivery behemoth United Parcel Service Inc. is giving potential truck drivers a hand by trying to speed up the licensing process for service members skilled in driving commercial vehicles, spokeswoman Kara Ross said. UPS this year committed to hiring 25,000 veterans over the next five years.

In some states, for example, veterans holding a military commercial driver's license are exempt from taking a skills test. In other states, the military license is not considered at all.

"Different states have different laws," Ross said. "We have been very involved in trying to streamline that process."

Many veterans also have to overcome stereotypes that soldiers return home with problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder, experts say. Some employers view them as potential liabilities.

After serving in the Marine Corps for 12 years, Roland Lolla, 34, left last year with the rank of sergeant and spent months fruitlessly searching for a job. The Glendale, Calif., resident said some companies seemed nervous about his military training.

"With some places it was frightening" to them, said Lolla, who finally landed a job as a part-time UPS supervisor in January. "A lot of people don't think we can turn it on and off, but it's not like that at all. It's a big misconception."

JPMorgan Chase & Co. has put together a military recruiting team composed mostly of veterans who can better understand applicants who are veterans, said Maureen Casey, managing director of the company's office of military and veteran affairs.

"You hear about the 99 percent and 1 percent divide -- 1 percent of the population has served in the military and 99 percent of us have not," Casey said. "There needs to be some way for both of us to cross that bridge."

The banking giant has also developed a program called Military 101 to educate its recruiters and hiring managers in military basics. Topics include military branches, culture and the rank system. And for veterans, a program called Body Armor to Business Suit helps them transition to working in the civilian world.