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SCHMIEGEL AND FINNERAN: Hiring our heroes

Businesses have a mission to accomplish

- - Wednesday, June 26, 2013

To fill job openings, American employers are taking a closer look at returning veterans and military spouses. They like what they see.

It is little wonder that businesses see this abundant talent pool as a way to strengthen company ranks. Our nation's veterans and their spouses bring job-ready skills, leadership talents, proven mettle and a work ethos rooted in loyalty. These are men and women who have demonstrated the ability to work in diverse and unpredictable environments, cooperate as committed team players, and shift gears at a moment's notice. They are not afraid of new challenges, and they possess the qualities that job recruiters covet.

We are making progress in getting these talented men and women back home and back to work. Unemployment among post-Sept. 11 veterans is dropping. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the jobless rate among this population is down by nearly a fifth since 2011. These numbers coincide with a concerted nationwide campaign to provide job opportunities to vets and their spouses, an effort marked by what has been perhaps an unparalleled collaboration among government, business and nonprofit groups.

In an era noted for polarization, this united mission is a stirring reminder of what can be achieved when Americans from every sector can pull together for a noble cause. The effort includes a virtual army of partners, from the White House to the American Legion, from Fortune 500 corporations to mom-and-pop operations on Main Street.

Indeed, businesses of every size have rallied to the challenge of "Hiring 500,000 Heroes," a campaign launched last year by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's National Chamber Foundation and Capital One Bank to secure pledges of 500,000 jobs for vets and spouses by the end of 2014. Small businesses are playing a pivotal role. As the most powerful engine driving the American economy, the nation's 27 million small businesses are crucial to the success of the initiative.

Since the program launched in March 2012, more than 1,000 businesses — large employers and small — have pledged to hire 233,000 vets and military spouses, and 108,000 vets and military spouses have found jobs.

While the early successes are inspiring, it is nowhere near time to declare victory. With more than 1 million men and women leaving active duty and entering the workforce in the next five years, many more employers will need to step up and join the effort.

In the case of the "Hiring Our Heroes" program, the creation of job fairs across the country has played a pivotal role. The idea behind the fairs was inspired largely by the confidence that if these job-seekers could make their cases in person, people on both sides of the recruiting table would come away as winners.

It is not an easy matter, of course. For many of the job candidates, who have been out of the marketplace for years or who are venturing into the workforce for the first time, the employment search can be a daunting experience. The fairs include employment workshops that provide assistance in burnishing resumes, creating a personal brand and improving interview techniques.

These fairs change lives. Consider the example of Mike Doyle, who enlisted in the Army right out of high school, rising quickly through the ranks, moving from infantry to intelligence. Despite his valuable experience in the military, along with the college degree he earned after discharge, Mike was running into many dead-ends in his career search.

At a job fair in Quantico, Va., he connected with a small business called Praescient Analytics. The next week, he was working in his own office as an analyst.

The company has continued to hire more veterans since Mr. Doyle came aboard. That's a familiar theme among companies, particularly smaller businesses that tend to know the experiences of their employees and rely so keenly on their performance. When these small businesses observe the skills and work ethic of a veteran or spouse, they tend to like what they see, and they hire more of them.

Small businesses such as Praescient hold the key to providing these important job opportunities. If businesses committed to hiring just one vet, the problem of veteran unemployment could be solved.

Veterans and military spouses have successfully defended the nation's interest in matters of security. Now, by strengthening our workforce, these men and women are helping America triumph on the home front. By reaching out and providing job opportunities, the nation's businesses have plenty to gain.

Lt. Col. Kevin Schmiegel, retired from the U.S. Marine Corps, is executive director for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation's Hiring Our Heroes program. John Finneran is general counsel for Capital One Financial and a Navy veteran.