Eric Rivera of West Chicago, a 23-year U.S. Air Force veteran and now an Air Force reservist, was called up in 2008 to serve as a logistics commander in Afghanistan. Naturally, parting was a difficult moment for him, his wife and his two young children. But he went overseas with one worry off his mind: He would have a job when he returned.
His employer, Sears Holdings Corp., promises its employees in the armed forces that, regardless of economic or any other circumstances, their jobs will be secure while they're called up for military duty. Sears also matched his pay while he was away and extended his benefits for up to 60 months. His supervisor called Rivera's home to check on the family while he was overseas. And when Rivera returned after seven months, he was promoted.
"My supervisors were behind me 100%," says Rivera, 43, now the project manager of inventory management systems and support at Sears' Hoffman Estates headquarters. "The reason I'm still with Sears is the fact that they do support us 100 percent and they really do listen to my needs."
About 10 percent of Sears' workforce—some 30,000 employees—is in the armed forces, and the company has been recognized by veterans groups and human resources organizations as a model military employer. Several other major Illinois employers also have been recognized as leaders, including Aon Corp. of Chicago; Bloomington-based State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co.; Navistar International Corp. of Warrenville; Chicago-based SeatonCorp., and J. P. Morgan Chase & Co., the largest bank operating in Chicago.
Keeping positions open while employees are on military duty presents a challenge for the managers and peers left behind—a difficulty large corporations often find easier to absorb than smaller employers. But local employers that have made a commitment to hiring and retaining military veterans say the payoffs usually outweigh the difficulties.
"We're currently hiring about 10 veterans a day since March," says a spokesman for J. P. Morgan Chase. "It's just the right thing to do given the huge sacrifices our service members have made for this country. But we know that we're also getting a lot out of it, given all of their skills."
Corporate outreach to veterans lately has taken many forms: Some local companies have joined forces with charities to build homes and support systems for disabled veterans. Others have become more aggressive about hiring veterans, appointing recruiters with the specific task of reaching out to unemployed veterans or to those just returning from active duty. In other cases, companies are enhancing benefits for reservists and National Guard members. Still others have launched mentorship programs so veterans in the workforce can help those just starting their careers.
Despite these efforts, the unemployment rate for those who have left service over the past decade is higher than the national average. For veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, unemployment is in the double-digits, and in some states, such as Minnesota, it's at nearly 20 percent, notes Kevin Schmiegel, vice-president of veterans employment programs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C.
Advocates say one of the biggest reasons veterans struggle to find jobs is that they don't translate for employers just how their military experience applies to a corporate setting.
"They need to understand the value they bring and communicate their value," says Jack Amberg, senior director of veterans initiatives at the Chicago-based McCormick Foundation. "At the same time, we've got to educate employers. I still get (employers) worrying" that veterans might not fit into their corporate culture.
Mr. Amberg says some employers buy into stereotypes, believing that veterans may be prone to violence or may struggle with emotional baggage from their experience. But he contends that veterans who have endured the extreme stress of a wartime situation are well-suited to handle the daily demands of a corporate job.
The Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, a group set up by the Department of Defense in 1972 to work with civilian employers to ease conflicts caused by an employee's military commitment, recently stepped up its efforts to help Illinois veterans whose jobs disappeared in the economic downturn. ESGR volunteer leaders are participating in more local job fairs and helping coach veterans for job interviews.
"For a lot of the people who had recently been deployed, a lot of them returned home and didn't have a job waiting for them," says retired Brig. Gen. Jay Sheedy, who commanded three Illinois National Guard units and is now employee outreach chairman for the Illinois ESGR Committee.
The U.S. Chamber is making similar moves, forming a national veterans employment advisory council to highlight the best practices of companies like Sears, Seaton, Chase and State Farm, which are effectively recruiting and retaining veterans. The council is putting a special emphasis on mentoring.