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Veterans make up largely untapped labor pool

By: Frank Esposito

March 22, 2013

TAMPA, FLA. — U.S. Army veteran Andy Corbett survived an explosion in Iraq, and now is helping fellow veterans find jobs when they return to civilian life.

Corbett — along with officials from plastic materials firm Uniform Color Co. and the Department of Veterans Affairs — said at the 2013 Plastics News Executive Forum that veterans can be a good fit for manufacturing jobs or for other positions in the plastics industry. The event was held March 3-6 in Tampa.

Corbett enlisted in the Army — along with several of his fraternity brothers from the University of Virginia — shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He was on his third tour of duty in Iraq in 2007 and working with a unit that was looking for IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, when one exploded, engulfing him in flames and shrapnel and blood.

Corbett was transferred back to a military hospital in San Antonio, where he spent 11 months recovering from his injuries, which included a collapsed lung. After being discharged, Corbett and his wife moved back in with his parents. He then began his return to civilian life.

"I was in job-hunt mode and failing constantly," he said. Corbett eventually landed a job with a firm as an IED instructor and then worked as a network intelligence analyst before joining Training Modernization Group Inc. — a Spotsylvania, Va.-based firm run by Joe Barto, the father of one of Corbett's high school friends.

Corbett now trains employers to hire veterans. "It was a good feeling to see guys who were clueless as privates succeed," he said. "And now it's a good feeling to see the number of veterans who are employed going up."

Dennis May, a retired Air Force colonel, is doing something similar on a larger scale as director of the Veterans Employment Services Office for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington. The VA employs 105,000 veterans — almost a third of its total workforce — and May wants that number to rise.

Veterans are sometimes challenged by finding post-military careers, he said, because some go into the military right out of high school and, as a result, don't have much civilian job experience. May's office can work first-hand with these types of veterans on job coaching and résumé writing. The office also can help find jobs for veterans who may have remaining commitments to the National Guard or reserves.

"Why hire a veteran?" May asked. "They have an accelerated learning curve and they understand leadership and teamwork.

"Hiring a veteran is a good thing in our hearts, but there are also tangible, hard, fast business reasons for hiring veterans," he added. "They can triumph over adversity, focus on a mission and perform under pressure."

May recently hired a homeless veteran to work at a VA help desk in New Orleans. On a broader scale, 1,400 veterans were hired in a two-day job fair in Detroit last year. A similar fair, which is free to employers that want to exhibit, will be held Aug. 7-8 in St. Louis.

Uniform Color has seen the direct, positive impact of hiring veterans, according to Kim Miller, human resources director of the color concentrates maker based in Holland, Mich. UCC currently has about 30 veterans — including technical manager John Laruffa, an Air Force veteran with a chemical engineering degree — among its 250 employees, and Miller said the firm wants that number to be higher.

"Our owner feels strongly about supporting the military, but there's also a business reason for doing that," Miller said.

"Collaboration is a big part of what they do — and they're comfortable in uncomfortable situations."

UCC has done extensive work with veterans and veterans organizations, winning awards for its efforts in 2010, 2011 and 2012. The firm has participated in hiring conferences with Lucas Group, and hiring fairs with H2H — Hero 2 Hired — and has worked with West Point cadet projects.

Some of UCC's efforts go beyond the basics. The firm has purchased plane tickets for veterans' families and kept those families involved with events at the firm, even when employees are serving on deployments. UCC also once bought protective eyewear for an employee's entire unit.

"Similar to any hiring decisions, you need to find the right person for the right organizational fit," she said. "But talent acquisition is difficult, so why not open yourself up to another pool of candidates?"