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Small firms crucial to veteran employment

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The state and federal government offer more incentives today for hiring veterans.

And large companies have the resources to seek and hire veterans on a regular basis. But advocates and recruiters say there's more to be done.

Small businesses, which make up the bulk of employment in the U.S., need to take an active role to hire veterans, said Kevin Schmiegel, executive director of Hiring Our Heroes, a veterans' employment program with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C.

"I believe that these big companies have done all they really can do," Schmiegel said. "They keep looking for more to do, but they largely can't do it without government

programs. We're trying to get their suppliers and customers and clients to do the same (hiring)."

Unemployment among all veterans has been improving, with rates coming close to that of the general workforce nationally, said Jim Borberly, an employment analyst with the U.S. Department of Labor.

But it's a different story for the young veterans known as Gulf War II-era veterans, those who served in the past decade, he said. Although the numbers have slowly improved with the economy, unemployment is still higher than other groups, at 10 percent as of October. That's down from 12 percent a year ago.

In Pennsylvania, Gulf War II veterans have an unemployment rate of 11.5 percent, Borberly said.

"When you're talking about younger veterans, it skews differently (than all veterans)," he said. "It's a tough time out there for all young people in the economy."

Many large companies have a good track record for hiring veterans, in part because they devote staff to the effort, Schmiegel said. At small companies, the owner might be doing the hiring in addition to other jobs, leaving less time to do a wide search.

However, not all veterans identify themselves as such on their job application, which means even large companies need to do a little digging to find them, said Dave Pidgeon, a spokesman for Virginia-based railroad Norfolk Southern Corp.

"We're definitely on the lookout to bring veterans into the railroad family," he said.

Norfolk Southern hired about 200 veterans in 2012 and 1,300 veterans during the past six years, Pidgeon said. Today, 4,200 veterans work for the company, or about 14 percent of its total workforce. The railroad has two large intermodal facilities in Dauphin County.

The company has a dedicated staff, Web pages where veterans can match military job skills to railroad jobs and other recruiting programs.

Norfolk Southern also is a partner with the Partnership for Youth Success, an Army program training soldiers in careers prior to their discharge. Partner companies and public agencies, such as police departments, promise to hire veterans to full-time positions.

Partnerships are a good way to address employment, said Schmiegel, who retired in 2009 from the Marine Corps as a lieutenant colonel after 20 years. His last job was in assignment and retention of Marines.

"When I talked to these thousands of Marines every year, I would ask them what they're going to do when they leave," Schmiegel said. "And they would say, 'Sir, I don't know, but I'll go home and figure it out when I get there.'"

That's a large problem: Veterans are leaving without knowledge of what industries are hiring and where those jobs are, he said.

Another issue: People shouldn't assume veterans want to do the same thing they did in the military, Schmiegel said.

"We shouldn't be hanging our hat on that," he said.

Instead, pointing veterans toward stable careers and helping them use their benefits for education and training will help them find employment outside the military, he said.

"I have a former sailor who was a nuclear engineer, and now he's in our legislative affairs internship because that's what he's interested in," said James Rodriguez, director of veterans programs and military recruitment for BAE Systems at its U.S. headquarters in Arlington, Va.

About 14 percent of BAE's 40,000 employees are veterans, according to GI Jobs magazine's 2013 Top 100 list of military-friendly companies.

Rodriguez, a retired sergeant with 21 years in the Marines, differs slightly from his friend Schmiegel; they've worked together on veterans' employment issues. He said skills transferability is still a significant issue in recruiting veterans.

Government programs to spur the private sector to hire veterans need to be reviewed to find what works and what doesn't, Schmiegel said. Right now, it's difficult to say what impact incentives such as tax credits have on unemployment rates.

Many incentives are designed with large companies in mind, he said.

"If we're really going to employ veterans, then we need to make tax credits or other programs easier for small businesses to take advantage of them," Schmiegel said. "Otherwise, if the effort costs more than it's worth, small businesses are just not going to take advantage of these programs."

If more small companies were hiring veterans, they could put a larger dent in veteran unemployment rates, he said.

Large companies could have a role to play in helping small companies hire veterans, Rodriguez said. Cooperation could be the weapon of choice against unemployment.

"We're encouraging our suppliers to do the same thing, and now they're hiring veterans, too," Rodriguez said. "We've opened opportunities to share resources, because it's one of those areas where it makes sense."

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