Veterans for hire

By:  Crissa Shoemaker DeBree

Not long ago, Matt Romano was in a long line at a military job fair waiting to speak with an FBI recruiter when he struck up a conversation with a hiring manager from Walmart.

The Army veteran was looking for an employer who could use the skills and experience he gained in four years of military service, including logistics management, stress management and leadership.

“I was looking to do something that I felt would be a natural transition, like FBI or DEA,” said Romano, a Bensalem native who now lives in Philadelphia. “For most military people, it seems a good transition.”

Within a matter of days, Romano was given an interview and offered a management position at Walmart. And after much soul-searching and a conversation with his uncle, a fellow veteran who also was looking to the world’s largest retailer for a career, Romano decided to go for it.

Today, Romano is manager of Walmart’s supercenter in Warminster. And he’s part of the retailer’s commitment to hire and train 100,000 veterans over the next five years.

“Veterans really have the skill set, the leadership skills, the service orientation that just fits really well in a retail environment,” said Gerrit Bandison, a human resources manager for Walmart’s Philadelphia and South Jersey regions. “Walmart is obviously looking for talented people that have those skill sets.”

For service members — particularly recent veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — transitioning to civilian employment has been a struggle. Many are unable to translate their military experience into the skills that today’s employers seek. And many employers don’t recognize that a logistics supply officer, for instance, would make a great retail manager.

“You don’t speak the same language,” said Robert Mann, a former Army pilot who joined Walmart nine years ago and recently was promoted to manager of the Bristol Township store. “You almost have to learn a new language. That is difficult.”

According to the Bureau for Labor Statistics, the national unemployment rate in April was 7.5 percent for recent military veterans. While that’s down from 9.2 percent a year ago, it’s still well above the national unemployment rate of 6.9 percent.

Veterans of the first Gulf War have fared better, with an unemployment rate of 5.5 percent. The total unemployment rate for all veterans was 6.2 percent in April.

Recognizing this problem, first lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden in 2011 launched the Joining Forces initiative to encourage businesses to hire military veterans and their spouses and to provide transitional and job training services.

On Wednesday, Democratic Sen. Bob Casey announced the Help Veterans Own Franchises Act, which would create a tax credit of up to $100,000 for veterans or their spouses who buy a business franchise. The bill is co-sponsored by Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio.

A day later, U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-13, traveled to Montgomery County to introduce the Veteran Employment Transition Act, which provides a new $2,400 tax credit to businesses that hire a recently discharged veteran. She announced the bill before veteran employees at Metlab, a heat-treating plant in Wyndmoor that is treating drive gears for the U.S. Navy’s new Arleigh Burke-class missile destroyer.

In addition to providing a new tax credit, the act would make permanent the current credits of between $2,400 and $9,600 for businesses that hire veterans.

John Titus started transitioning from the military to civilian life long before he left the Navy in September after 30 years of service.

The Pemberton, N.J., High School graduate and Lower Moreland resident landed a job at Comcast, where he’s an area vice president in charge of operations for Bucks and Montgomery counties, and Central Jersey.

“The perception is the military is not a very technical industry,” said Titus, 48. “That’s one of the biggest falsehoods of the military. Every job has a very strong foundation in some kind of technical area. More importantly, we have many exercises on how to do problem solving. (Veterans are) technically savvy and can learn high levels of technical material.”

In the last 15 months, Comcast has hired more than 1,300 veterans under its commitment to hire at least 2,000 in the next few years as part of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s “Hiring Our Heroes” initiative. Comcast and NBCUniversal also created a Veterans Network employee resource groups to provide support and mentoring to veterans who have joined their workforces.

“There are two different kinds of companies: those that say they want to hire veterans, and companies that commit to hiring veterans by learning how to hire veterans,” Titus said. “I’m very proud of Comcast for being one of those organizations that are learning how to hire veterans, and getting their recruiters and their HR team educated, working with local veteran transition groups, and benchmarking with other companies about best (hiring) practices.”

Of the 150 or so associates working at Home Depot in Warrington, nearly 20 percent are military veterans, said store manager Mike Palumbo. The home improvement retailer‘s commitment to hire veteran dates to 2004.

“The military people that we’ve been able to hire have been some of our best associates,” Palumbo said. “They’ve gone on to have second careers or have developed careers with our company. Veterans have the knowledge. They’re hard-working. They’re able to come up with solutions to problems.”

Romano and Mann, who spent 15 years in the Army, said they feel at home at Walmart, where they run their stores with military precision. Everyone has a role to play, from hourly associates — the privates of the organization — to the shift managers, who serve almost like platoon leaders.

“I rely on these people to make it happen,” Mann said.