01/15/2013 05:39 pm ET

Walmart's Veteran Hiring Plan Draws Praise, Skepticism

As prominent veterans groups and the White House hailed Walmart's announcement Tuesday that it would hire 100,000 veterans over the next five years, economists and other management experts noted the move, while positive, is somewhat symbolic.

"Job turnover at Walmart is such that they ought to easily accommodate any vet looking for work," said Mike Hicks, a Ball State University economist who has studied Walmart's retail impact. "They probably won't see a huge uptick in vet applications, but it is smart from both a public relations and human capital perspectives."

Walmart does not plan to create any new jobs for newly returned veterans, but the retailer said in a release that military applicants “will receive priority applicant status for any open Walmart position posted externally and for which he/she meets the minimum qualifications." Older vets will not get the priority status, but Walmart said they will be "highly valued candidates." The jobs on offer include part-time store or club positions or assistant manager trainee positions.

“Hiring a veteran can be one of the best business decisions you make,” Walmart CEO Simon said in a statement released on Tuesday. “Veterans have a record of performance under pressure. They’re quick learners and team players. They are leaders with discipline, training, and a passion for service." Walmart declined to comment further.

The new hiring program, set to begin on Memorial Day, will only extend to veterans who have left active-duty service in the prior 12 months. That means the program is less likely to bring more jobs to older recent veterans -- those discharged between September 2001 and December 2012 -- who now face a current unemployment rate of of 10.8 percent, nearly three percentage points higher than the overall unemployment rate, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Still, Heidi Shierholz, a labor economist with the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit economic research group, said the retailer's veteran hiring push could "change the mix" of who is employed, and veterans groups roundly praised the measure.

"We applaud any company that is focused on removing those barriers and creating jobs for those who have served," Anne Marie Dougherty, executive director of the Bob Woodruff Foundation, a nonprofit organization that serves injured veterans and provides training and support to military families. The Department of Veterans Affairs also praised Walmart for its commitment to hire veterans in a statement released on Tuesday.

Mike Haynie, executive director of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University, told The Huffington Post that the hiring message Walmart was sending to other employers would help veterans of all ages. The institute has a partnership with the Walmart Foundation.

The announcement comes at a time of intense public scrutiny for the retailer, which faces backlash over its sale of certain firearms and for its role in an international bribery scandal. The initiative could also help Walmart take advantage of some tax breaks the Obama administration offers to companies that hire veterans.

Walmart's pledge is the largest commitment to hiring veterans made so far by a single company. Since August 2011, 2,000 companies have hired or trained more than 125,000 veterans and military spouses, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Walmart is one of several major corporate employers in the United States , including Microsoft and Ford Motor Co., to make a push to help veterans find a way to re-enter the civilian job market.

The announcement follows on Walmart’s past comittment to assist veterans with finding meaningful work following military service. At the end of 2011, the Walmart Foundation pledged a two-year $750,000 grant to Veterans Green Jobs to help place at least 1,000 veterans into full-time green sector jobs. The Foundation has also made a $20 million giving pledge aimed at combating the high veteran unemployment rate.

Simon also said at a retailer conference in New York that Walmart would buy $50 billion in U.S. products over the next 10 years as a way to stimulate the American economy.