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Veterans Need Jobs, Business Needs Veterans

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Newsweek's April 19 cover story "America's Back! The Remarkable Tale of our Economic Turnaround" paints an aggressively optimistic picture of a future full of promise, pride and prosperity.

Some may find the piece reassuring; others may consider it one-sided. What shocked and disappointed me, however, was the omission of any mention of one of America's most pressing challenges and potential economic advantages: our returning veterans.

Debates will continue over the return of economic good times, but the fact is that it's America's service members who are back - and tens of thousands more will be coming home in the months and years ahead. Unfortunately, what too many are coming home to is a lack of jobs, social services and understanding.

This issue has brought a double-whammy to many communities.

First, when young men and women -- reservists and members of the National Guard -- are deployed, America's "main streets" are shipped overseas. This depletion of human capital -- the young parents, producers and consumers in our communities -- may have prolonged and worsened the recession, especially in rural areas, like where I live. And repeated redeployments have intensified the toll.

Second, when our veterans return home, they bring with them a range of needs that many communities are ill-equipped to pay for or provide. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are unlike past conflicts. Many active duty soldiers, reservists and National Guard members have been called to active duty several times; more women and parents of young children have been called away from their families; a higher percentage of troops are returning home with severe physical injuries and mental illnesses. And to add insult to injury, today more than 50% of returning soldiers have no job waiting for them.

These circumstances have created unique problems for our veterans. And many believe that the needs of today's veterans will evolve in ways no one can predict.

All of this is happening at a time when most state and local governments are facing some of the most serious budget deficits seen in decades. We've all read stories in our local papers about proposals to cut back public transportation, police and firefighting costs, school and recreation spending, and many other public services. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told the Washington Post April 14 that "Pressures on state and local budgets, though tempered by ongoing federal support, have led to continuing declines in employment."

But the news isn't all bleak. As the former mayor of a small town in Oregon and a career human resource professional, I've seen my own community and state step up and do right by the people to whom we owe so much.

Oregon is responding by creating teams of job specialists who meet with returning troops and provide a one-stop reference for services, training and education and employment.

In my hometown of The Dalles (population approximately 15,000), we've welcomed our returning troops home with special ceremonies and events. Thanks to some help from state agencies and local civic groups, we've thanked our veterans -- and made sure they knew there were plenty of people ready to help them acclimate to civilian life.

During the past week, OregonLive.com has posted a couple of articles about how the state has become a national leader when it comes to caring for veterans.

All this may sound altruistic, but as an HR leader, I can attest to the fact that helping these men and women transition back into the world of work is a business imperative. Want to see what the face of America's new business leaders looks like? Pick up the March 22 issue of Fortune. The cover story profiles what HR leaders at companies like Wal-Mart, General Electric, PepsiCo, Morgan Stanley, Northrop Grumman and others have done to leverage the experience and skills of our veterans to create the next generation of business leaders and thinkers.

One such thought leader is Drew Peneton, a veteran and author of the blog, Boots to Suits. His web writings have not just provided sound advice to veterans, but have helped educate business executives and policymakers through compelling first-hand stories -- stories about the experience and positive attitude he and his fellow veterans can bring to the world of business.

We've all read about or experienced the challenge of finding talent for our organizations. In some sectors, it's become a matter of survival, as more and more baby boomers retire every day, and as fewer and fewer entrants to the workforce have the necessary skills to replace them. Veterans -- including reservists and National Guard members -- offer a solution. Skills like teamwork, verbal and written communication, leadership, resourcefulness, follow-through, reliability, loyalty and discipline are all hallmarks of military training and success. There is no organization or business that can't benefit from such experience.

How important is this to America's future? It's important enough that the world's largest HR association, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), of which I am the Board chair, recently signed a partnership agreement with Employers Support for the Guard and Reserve (ESGR) to help match employers with the men and women in uniform who already have the much needed skills that the private sector needs.

This means we've called upon all 250,000 SHRM members from across the country to help ensure that reservists and members of the National Guard "are promptly re-employed in their civilian jobs upon their return to duty" and they "are not disadvantaged in their careers because of their service."

Those job protections aren't just lofty goals; they're the law under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994.

And I'm proud to be part of a profession that is helping all service members transition to civilian life by helping translate military experience into private sector needs, teaching interviewing skills, and offering resume preparation and access to job banks.

Some may question how a small community like The Dalles, or the state of Oregon, or a group of human resource professionals thinks they can find a way to serve our homecoming veterans and help rebuild the economy at the same time. I say the real question ought to be why more people aren't making the same effort.

The famous American author -- and a veteran himself -- F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "Show me a hero and I'll write you a tragedy." As our heroes come home -- the nearly 2 million U.S. troops deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001 -- we owe them a return that's written with hope and opportunity, not tragedy.