Over the last year, corporate America has set ambitious goals to hire jobless veterans, and some companies say they’ve already met or surpassed employment targets.
In one of the biggest initiatives, Walmart said it would put 100,000 veterans to work within five years. Since the program started Memorial Day, more than 20,000 veterans have been hired for jobs ranging from part-time retail to corporate management, according to the company.
“These are very valuable, very talented people," said Ret. Brigadier General Gary Profit, who oversees Walmart’s veteran hiring program. "We want them to help form the next generation of Walmart."
Companies say that they want to give back to service members who risked their lives for the country. But some, including veterans, are skeptical about their motives.
“It’s good PR for their company,” said Anthony Wayne Ford, 56, a Vietnam War-era veteran from Los Angeles who lost his job painting apartments last year. “'Let’s hire a vet.' You should have always been hiring a vet.”
Ford questioned whether companies are motivated by their bottom line. If any veterans hired are disabled or struggled with long-term unemployment, a company qualifies for tax credits.
But others had praise for corporations making veteran hiring programs a priority.
Tim Norman, who served in the first Gulf War, said “as a veteran, I’m very proud of America and America’s corporations for making these commitments.”
No charity cases, thank you
Norman is leading his own effort to hire veterans as a recruiting executive at DreamWorks Animation, the studio behind the Shrek movies.
"We have veterans that are doing effects work and animation," Norman said. "Our head of R&D here is a veteran."
About 20 veterans work at DreamWorks - out of some 1,600 employees. But Norman thinks more could come on board, as hiring managers learn how well military skills such as team-building translate to the entertainment world.
DreamWorks is part of a larger campaign called Got Your Six, which uses the clout of movie studios, television networks and talent agencies to promote veterans' issues such as employment.
Norman urges employers to avoid looking at veterans as charity cases.
"You need to hire them because they are vets - not because they’re disadvantaged or need help," Norman said.
The US Chamber of Commerce Foundation and its partners
Goal: 500,000 veterans and military spouses hired between 2012 and 2014
To date: 119,000 hired
Goal: More than 2,000 veterans by 2015
To date: more than 1,300 veterans
Goal: at least 10,000 veterans and their spouses over the next five years
To date: TBD, program just announced last week
Job search success varies among veterans
In fact, veterans as a group are better off than other Americans when it comes to jobs. In October, veterans’ unemployment rate was 6.9 percent, compared to 6.8 percent for non-veterans, according to the Bureau of Labor statistics.
Paul Reickhoff is executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which has been pushing for veteran hires, and says they are staring to make a difference.
"Some of the trend lines are going in the right direction," Reickhoff said.
But, Reickhoff said, a segment of veterans is still faring badly in the job market. Those who served after 9/11 posted an unemployment rate of 10 percent. Reickhoff said some newer veterans face mental health problems and long waits for disability compensation.
"Then you throw in something like the government shutdown, where the Department of Defense is being shrunk, and some folks are frankly losing their jobs," Reickhoff said.
A landing space
Even if corporations continue to develop special hiring programs, some veterans may not be ready when job opportunities appear. For veterans unprepared to make the transition, there are programs available like Green Vets.
Jim Cragg founded the work program for veterans rebounding from struggles with substance abuse and mental health issues. Participants sew reusable bags and assemble medical kits.
“We want to give them a place where they can feel comfortable, talk about their military experiences," said Cragg, himself a service-disabled veteran.
About 20 veterans split their time between the Veterans Administration campus in West Los Angeles and the Carson manufacturing facility for Cragg's company, S.O. Tech, which makes military gear and employs several veterans full-time.
"A lot of the big companies, maybe the size of them, the bureaucracy involved, they may not have the time to work with these individuals and move them along," Cragg said.
A job for every veteran
Cragg hopes his veterans can one day take advantage of the corporate hiring initiatives; but they may not be eligible for all of them. Walmart, for example, is hiring applicants who’ve been honorably discharged within the last 12 months.
That excludes an unemployed Vietnam War-era veteran like Anthony Wayne Ford, who struggled for nearly a year to find steady employment.
"You know, I was at the bottom of the barrel," Ford said. "Things weren’t going right."
He spent many days at the Employment Development Department office on Crenshaw where he received plenty of support from staff. But job leads went nowhere, and he feared becoming homeless.
A little over a week ago, though, things took a turn for the surprising. Ford landed a painting job with a contractor on the Metro light rail project that could lead to several years' of work.
Ford conceded that Metro’s own veteran hiring initiative may have helped him out.
But he said, ”I’m just one of many. My brothers and sisters are still unemployed."
Ford says every veteran deserves, and should have a job. But with thousands more service members scheduled to return from Afghanistan next year, that could be a tall order.
Job fairs specifially for veterans take place on a regular basis in California. The next one in Los Angeles is scheduled Nov. 21 at the Proud Bird Event Center. For more information, go here.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the age of veteran Anthony Wayne Ford. KPCC regrets the error.