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Businesses step up efforts to hire veterans

It took Francisco "Frank" Miranda, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, about three years to find a job in the civilian world that was a good fit.

It took Francisco "Frank" Miranda, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, about three years to find a job in the civilian world that was a good fit. Since August, Miranda has been working at Home Depot in Totowa, N.J., where he and two fellow vet employees refer to each other by their former military ranks.

"That's the respect that we give each other," said Miranda, a 50-year-old Woodland Park, N.J., resident. "They call me by saying, 'Hey, master sergeant.' "

Home Depot is one of a number of companies that have stepped up their efforts to recruit U.S. military veterans, helping ex-service members such as Miranda who have struggled to find work and to adjust to life back home. The chain of home-improvement stores employs 35,000 veterans, around 10 percent of its workforce, and has committed to hire about 55,000 vets over the next five years.

And Home Depot isn't the only business that's looking to beef up its staff, and find innovative ways beyond job fairs, to connect with veterans.

This year, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. pledged to hire every veteran who wanted a job and who had left the service in the prior year.

Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey and power company PSE&G participated in two separate pilot programs aimed at matching them with veterans to hire, and disabled vets handled customer calls for the utility following Superstorm Sandy.

And last month, the White House unveiled "Warriors 4 Wireless," an initiative seeking to place 5,000 vets in jobs in the wireless telecom industry by 2015.

Alex Leniw, a 33-year-old Garfield, N.J., man who served 10 years in the Coast Guard, knows firsthand how hard it can be for a veteran to get a job. When he got out of the service, he attended Caldwell College for two years and graduated. For a year since then, he has been hunting for work.

"It's just so frustrating," Leniw said. "The economy's not helping. I had my resume on for a while, and that went nowhere. ... Every job I'm applying for, there's over 100 other applicants."

Veterans returning to civilian life have new battles to fight on the home front. They face a competitive job market; are sometimes emotionally challenged by the transition from the military; and they often lack the ability to explain and translate how their military skills can benefit an employer.

Nationally, unemployment for veterans has been trending down, falling to 7 percent last year from 8.7 percent in 2010.

"Most of the employers are very eager to hire veterans," said New Jersey Labor Commissioner Harold Wirths. "I always tell them not only morally is it the correct thing to do, but economically it's great. You're getting a highly skilled employee. You don't have to worry about telling them how to dress. They come to work on time. They're used to harsh conditions."

Wirths also said younger ex-service members often go to college under the GI Bill and are therefore counted as unemployed. That can skew veteran unemployment figures, he said, including in New Jersey, where the unemployment rate for veterans was 10 percent last year. At job fairs, the commissioner said, he is seeing many Vietnam War-era vets, in the 50- to 60-year-age range, seeking work.

Miranda is in that age bracket. He spent 27 years in the U.S. Army, serving in places such as Afghanistan and Kuwait, before retiring in October 2010. The transition took an emotional toll on him, Miranda said.

"It was a big adjustment," he said. "It was overwhelming not having that responsibility of commanding and being responsible for soldiers."

Miranda worked briefly for a supermarket, and eventually applied online for a job at Home Depot. Now he works about 25 to 30 hours a week, in the appliance department and "doing the racetrack," running from department to department to help customers.

At Home Depot, Miranda said he has a chance to advance and is working for a company that shares the same values of the Army – such as loyalty, duty, respect and service.

"We really have been proactive trying to recruit military," said Pam Frazier, human relations manager for the Home Depot district where Miranda works.

Home Depot holds its own job fairs for veterans at its stores, and has a "military skills translator" on its website to help veterans explain how their military experience can be applied at the chain, she said.

"We are looking for knowledgeable, hard-working, solution-based experience, and of course customer service is a definite plus," Frazier said. "We really targeted military veterans because they tend to stay with you.''

This year, Horizon Blue Cross teamed up with Rutgers University-Newark (N.J.) and the nonprofit Workforce Opportunity Services for a 39-week work-study program for veterans. Roughly a dozen veterans were chosen for the pilot program, where they are interning for Horizon in Newark during the day and taking software development and business courses at night, said Peggy Coons, Horizon's senior vice president of human resources.

The class is set to graduate around Christmas, and the program has been so successful that Horizon plans to repeat it next year.

"There's no company that wouldn't say they don't want to hire veterans," Coons said. "But somehow or other, when we went to job fairs, we just weren't getting the traction, and we weren't real sure why."

The work-study program gives Horizon months, rather than 10 minutes at a job fair, to evaluate veterans and acclimate them to the company's corporate culture, Coons said.

James Lee, a 26-year-old Cliffside Park, N.J., resident, is about to finish Horizon's program. Lee joined the National Guard in October 2010 as an infantryman, and was stationed in Jersey City, N.J. He was sent to the shore following Superstorm Sandy to patrol and guard against looting. The Horizon program has been a boon in terms of finding employment, Lee said.

"A couple of my fellow soldiers I know, they are having trouble finding jobs," Lee said.

The GI Go Fund, a Newark-based nonprofit that assists veterans, developed a work-at-home-training program for veterans with disabilities. The nonprofit in 2011 received a $30,000 grant from the Kessler Foundation in West Orange, N.J., and set up the training, which led to 50 veterans with disabilities getting work as home-based customer-service representatives for companies such as PSE&G and Johnson & Johnson.

The program has been expanded and adopted as a model by some companies, which are creating U.S.-based call centers staffed by veterans with disabilities.

"It really just highlights how valuable veterans are and the resources they bring and their ability to work on their own," said Jack Fanous, executive director of the GI Go Fund.

Still, veterans such as Leniw remain disheartened about their lack of job prospects and struggle to make employers recognize their skills. He recalled applying for a job and being told that he, and other vets, hadn't been picked for interviews because they didn't have the keyword "manager" on their resumes – not a common term in the military.

"If you're in the military for two or three years, you're already going to start building your management repertoire once you get two or three ranks under your belt," Leniw said. "You're going to have people below that you're supervising."


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