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'Military friendly' firms spur 'positive upswell' in veteran hiring; more work needed: report

Speaking on Veterans Day at Arlington National Cemetery,  President Obama says, "But as our service members return, many are discovering a new battlefield as they leave the military and search for civilian employment opportunities." Watch his entire speech.

The upper tier of the 100 most “military-friendly” employers this year includes three financial giants and three transportation behemoths, but as U.S. companies measurably boost veteran-hiring rates, they’re “not quite there yet,” said the publisher of the ranking, released Thursday.

“As more employers adopt similar policies, it’s getting more competitive to make this list,” said Sean Collins, vice president of Victory Media, which offers its annual index via militaryfriendly.com. “If you’re looking at the list in an isolated sense, that’s a great thing.”

The top-rated “military-friendly” corporation, reports G.I. Jobs, is San Antonio-based USAA, a financial-services outfit created in 1922 by Army officers as a mutual insurance company for other service members. USAA recently launched an initiative called “Combat to Claims,” training post-9/11 veterans to become claims adjustors.

“The reason the program is working so well is because military folks have such a sense of discipline and order,” said Joe Robles, the CEO of USAA and a retired Army major general.

Other highly ranked “military-friendly” employers include Deloitte (No. 3), General Electric (No. 9) and railroad operators CSX (No. 2) and Burlington Northern Santa Fe (No. 5).

Related: Employers step up efforts to recruit, hire veterans

“They are able to weave military into the fabric of their companies, as just a way of doing business,” said Collins, who served as a pilot in the U.S. Navy from 2001 to 2009, reaching the rank of lieutenant.

Meanwhile, just keeping a foothold in the elite G.I. Jobs list is equally challenging. Amazon.com – the No. 1 “military friendly” corporation on the 2011 list — comes in at No. 89 this year, despite hiring 600 veterans since January. T-Mobile, No. 10 in last year’s G.I. Jobs index — now sits at No. 71.

Now in its tenth year, the list is assembled through a survey of companies inside and outside the Fortune 1000, Collins said.  To ensure consistent comparisons and to capture a broad snapshot of the American employment landscape, Victory Media only assesses businesses with annual revenues of at least $500 million. A weighted scoring system then stacks the top 100: “recruiting efforts” compose 35 percent of a company’s overall “military-friendly” grade, followed by factors such as “recruiting results” and “retention.”

G.I. Jobs — which publishes a similar annual breakdown of the best colleges for veterans — recently partnered with Orion International, the nation’s largest military-recruiting firm. Orion, which specializes in finding civilian careers for junior military officers, noncommissioned officers and enlisted technicians, is actively working to help several U.S. companies grab future spots in the coveted top 100.

“We’re trying to build new programs within a lot of companies that have not been in play with hiring a lot of veterans in the past,” said Mike Starich, president of Orion and a former Marine.

Those include Intel, a tech company that has hired more than 500 veterans this year, and electronics and engineering firm Siemens, which has hired more than 1,000 veterans since 2010.

Chocolate king Hershey’s is also “very new to this whole world,” Starich said.

"And it’s not just for altruistic reasons. They have issues that military veterans can definitely help with," he said, citing an aging work force. "This is a well-established company who has enjoyed strong retention within its ranks, who will soon be experiencing a talent crunch as many within their workforce begin to retire. They are seeking a new pipeline of talent."

When compared to out-of-work civilians, veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have had a tougher time finding jobs, posting a collective unemployment rate of 9.7 percent in September — about two points higher than the rest of the country, reports the federal government.

But increasingly, American companies are tuning in to the mass of young talent coming home from war, Collins said.

In 2003, when G.I. Jobs began publishing its top-100 list, the average percentage of new hires who were veterans was 5.8 percent, Collins said. This year, that number was 13.8 percent.

Asked to grade U.S. employers on their overall veteran-hiring practice, Collins said: “I look at it two ways. In regard to their awareness of the benefits of the military community, we’re probably at an A. We’re probably at an all-time high. As far as recruiting (those former service members into U.S. companies), we’re not quite there yet.”

Starich agreed with that grade yet cautioned that veteran-hiring rates can’t be viewed outside the overall sluggish economy.

“If companies can build programs that hire military similar to the way they have programs that hire out of colleges, that would be the way to go,” Starich said. “At this point, I would give them a C (for recruiting veterans into civilian jobs). The reason for that is simply because of their demand, though, and how much the economy feeds new orders and (the companies’) ability to expand. Clearly, they all have to run their own businesses and be profitable.

“The key to getting that grade from C to a B or moving to an A: We definitely need some economic expansion going on. That’s really critical for us,” Starich added. “But there is definitely a positive upswell in veteran interest among the companies.”

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