WASHINGTON -- First Lady Michelle Obama announced new, large scale public-private partnerships Thursday with two pro-business industry groups, the International Franchise Association and U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- partnerships that, taken together, could help create job opportunities for 100,000 military veterans and their families.
The two groups will partner with the Joining Forces initiative, founded by the first lady and Dr. Jill Biden to support veterans and military families. During a launch event Thursday at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce headquarters, Mrs. Obama stressed the urgency of addressing unemployment among veterans.
The first lady noted that last week, "the overall unemployment rate dipped, yet the rate of Iraq and Afghanistan's veterans continued to rise." Unemployment among post-9/11 veterans currently stands at 12.1 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The larger of the two partnerships is with the IFA, which "has committed to hire 80,000 veterans and military spouses -- which will include 5,000 of our wounded warriors -- by 2014," Mrs. Obama said. The second joint effort is with U.S. Chamber of Commerce member companies and the Pentagon's Military Spouse Employment Program, which the first lady said "has committed to hire 20,000 military spouses at companies like Microsoft, Citi and Home Depot."
The IFA represents more than 1,100 franchise businesses, and according to U.S. Navy Captain Brad Cooper, executive director of the White House Joining Forces Initiative, the IFA's commitment "represents the largest employment commitment seen to date from the private sector."
But the definition of what it means to "hire" 80,000 veterans in the franchise industry is complicated. It might be more accurate to say that the partnerships will provide a combination of jobs at existing franchises and opportunities for veterans to purchase franchises of their own. According to IFA spokesman Matt Haller, it remains to be seen at this early stage how different IFA members will decide to respond to the industry group's initiative to spur member companies to participate in the program.
One franchisor, The UPS Store, has already agreed to waive the franchise fee for "up to 10 honorably discharged qualified veterans who sign a letter of intent" in the first half of next year. It has also pledged to provide "additional support from Franchise America Finance and the Bancorp Bank," presumably so that vets can more easily borrow money to purchase franchises from The UPS Store. Another company, Aaron's Rents, a furniture rental franchise, has committed to "hire 500 veterans" by 2014, but it's unclear whether that means directly hiring individuals to work in franchised stores, or recruiting veterans to purchase and operate franchise locations of their own.
For the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the commitment to military spouses, which will be coordinated through the Military Spouses Employment Program, represents the latest step in a partnership with Joining Forces launched in June, called "Hiring Our Heroes." As of Thursday, the eve of Veterans Day, the initiative has conducted 64 hiring fairs nationwide for military veterans and their families, resulting in 3,400 hires.
Russ Cohen, a senior director at the Chamber, said that "today's commitment for military spouses is from member companies, not the Chamber itself, but the role the Chamber is playing is by hosting veterans hiring fairs and helping to activate and inform our network of 1,600 local chambers of commerce, which are excited to hire veterans."
"The real strength of this program is that it utilizes our extraordinary grass-roots presence, and helps us address the problem of unemployment in military families from all angles," he added.
These jobs partnerships are especially noteworthy in that both the IFA and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce currently oppose President Obama's jobs program, the American Jobs Act. Although providing jobs for returning veterans is a goal shared across the Obama administration, the first lady's office is in a unique position to partner publicly with industry groups such as IFA and the U.S. Chamber for veterans jobs programs, while on the other side of the White House, those same groups actively lobby against the American Jobs Act.
There was, however, one potentially awkward moment during Mrs. Obama's remarks at the Chamber on Thursday, when she tied the industry commitments to the very jobs bill those groups oppose. "All of these commitments come on top of the steps my husband's administration is taking at the federal level," she said. "In the American Jobs Act, he proposed tax credits for businesses that hire unemployed veterans or wounded warriors."
Only hours after Mrs. Obama's remarks, tax credits that aid unemployed veterans were passed by the Senate in a stand-alone bill, the bipartisan Vow to Hire Heroes Act. The IFA applauded the bill's passage.
Haller, the IFA spokesman, declined to discuss whether the group's opposition to the president's jobs bill was ever a factor in any aspect of the joint initiative with the first lady, saying only that "the IFA has supported veterans programs for many years, and this was a great way to keep doing so." He added that the partnership served "a higher cause" than current policy battles.
U.S. Chamber spokesman Dave Natonski echoed Haller's sentiment, saying, "the bottom line is that this partnership is going to create jobs, and that's something we all can agree on."
The first lady's office declined to comment on whether the groups' political positions ever affected the partnership opportunities, but she has said before that everyone, regardless of political persuasion, has a role to play in supporting veterans and military families.
"This is about who we are as individuals and as a country," the first lady said Thursday. "This is about making sure that every person who wears our uniform knows that their fellow citizens have their backs."