- - Tuesday, August 14, 2012

As we approach the 11-year anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, America’s armed forces have returned by the thousands from Iraq and we are in the early stages of the drawdown in Afghanistan. More than a decade later, many of the men and women who defended our country have left the service — only to find a grim employment picture waiting for them.

In 2011, the jobless rate for veterans who have served in our nation’s military since 9/11 was 50 percent higher than the national average. Veterans 24 and younger faced a staggering 29.1 percent unemployment rate last year.

While organizations are working to address this national security imperative, we have witnessed firsthand the difficulties our brothers- and sisters-in-arms have faced as they transition from the military. Many private-sector companies are stepping up and finding innovative ways to help these men and women — many of whom are searching for civilian jobs for the first time since graduating from high school.

In March 2011, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s National Chamber Foundation launched the Hiring Our Heroes program. The goal from the outset was to create a movement across America. With more than 230 hiring fairs in 48 states and more than 10,400 veterans and military spouses landing jobs, this grass-roots campaign is taking hold in dozens of communities across America. With an aggressive goal of hosting hiring fairs in 400 cities in 2012, Hiring Our Heroes is the largest-scale effort of its kind.

Beyond this work at the local level, Hiring Our Heroes is launching several programs to address the systemic issues facing military servicemen before they become veterans. Among them, Hiring Our Heroes and Toyota are teaming up to launch a personal branding initiative to help veterans and transitioning servicemen define, create and promote their brand at hundreds of events across the country.

With more than 1 million members leaving active duty in the next five years, it is clear that our nation must do a better job of giving transitioning post-9/11 veterans the tools they need to compete for jobs in the civilian workforce.

Veterans also must do their part to compete in a tight job market. While they bring value to the workplace, they need to do a better job of marketing their unique experiences and skills as Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen. Infantrymen, scout snipers and cannoneers can’t expect to be hired after an interview filled with military jargon that boils down four years of honorable service to simply skills trained in weaponry.

Building a personal brand is not just about translating military occupational skills. Many are throwing that around as the “big fix,” but it’s more than that. Younger veterans have advanced technical skills and intangible qualities such as unparalleled discipline, a tireless work ethic, dependability and the ability to work in teams. These are qualities that their peers who went straight into college after high school have not had the opportunity to develop.

What business doesn’t want employees who have leadership experience and can adapt to rapidly changing circumstances and rise to any challenge? Veterans cannot expect employers — and human resource managers, in particular — to understand that without an explanation. There are no handouts, and veterans don’t want any. It’s a tough environment, and they must compete just like they did in uniform — on the rifle range, in the classroom and in the field. This is about telling the story of service to the nation — one that all veterans can be proud of and one that helps them stand out in a job interview.

Personal branding is the biggest obstacle facing newer veterans. Few have developed strong elevator pitches, and many fail when they step in front of an employer for the first time and have less than 90 seconds to show why they should be hired over someone else.

With the help of Hiring Our Heroes and Toyota, our aim over the next several months is to impress upon thousands of veterans and transitioning members of the service the importance of personal branding. Doing so has nothing to do with charity. This is about opportunity. It’s about giving our newest generation of veterans the tools they need to succeed and employers of all sizes — from every industry and sector — a chance to tap into the most talented pool of young Americans our country has to offer.

Sgt. Dakota Meyer is a Medal of Honor recipient. Retired Marine veteran Lt. Col. Kevin Schmiegel is executive director of Hiring Our Heroes.

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