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'Hire Our Heroes': How Chamber of Commerce is Tackling Veterans' High Unemployment Rate

An interview with Kevin Schmiegel, vice-president for veterans employment initiatives at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

January 12, 2012

Kevin Schmiegel, 44, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, is vice-president for veterans employment initiatives at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He launched the chamber's Hiring our Heroes effort last March, featuring job fairs around the country to help veterans and their spouses find employment.

CRAINS: What factors contribute to the high unemployment rate for veterans?

SCHMIEGEL: Veterans themselves need to do a better job of explaining the unique skill set that they picked up in the military. We spend tremendous amounts of money training young men and women with very technical skills. They come out with what amounts to an undergraduate degree as mechanics, technicians and machinists. However, human resource managers don't always have a good understanding of what a military occupation really means and how it translates to a civilian job.

How do you tell employers that it still makes sense to hire someone in the Guard or Reserve, even though they may lose them for an extended period of time?

Obviously, bigger employers can support the loss better. If you look at an employer like Sears, they're doing extraordinary things for the Guard and the Reserve. They've set the example for other companies. But I think what we're seeing in America is that a lot of small employers can't absorb that loss right now. Let's be honest about this. To really solve the issue of veterans unemployment, it's not going to be done by big employers alone.

Your first Hiring our Heroes jobs fair was held in Chicago in March. What kind of results did you get from that inaugural event?

There were 127 employers; 1,200 military veterans and spouses attended, and 207 got jobs. In 24 total hiring fairs, we've connected 23,000 veterans and military spouses with over 1,200 different employers in 20 different states, and we've placed over 2,000 in jobs so far. The chamber also recently announced a partnership with the American Legion. We're going to scale this from 100 hiring fairs in the first year to 400 or 500 next year.

What are the biggest problems you're facing in getting more veterans jobs?

A lot of people are getting frustrated that they're not getting jobs on the spot. That's just not something that's going to happen in a lot of cases. So what the chamber is doing is creating an IT architecture to support the events. If a veteran doesn't get a job at the hiring fair, they will be able to go back to our site and figure out what skills they need to get the job they want. It's also a site where employers can go to look for veteran talent.

Why do veterans need such a large-scale program like this?

I understand a lot of people are suffering, but if someone is putting themselves in harm's way to protect our freedoms and then enduring long separations from their loved ones and then they don't have a job when they get out, it makes sense to do a program like this. One of the things we say to people when they join us is they're going to have a better chance at a good job when they leave, that they're going to be in a better position. If we break that contract, how are we going to get people to enlist in the first place?

Filed by Crain's Chicago Business, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, email editors@workforce.com.

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