ATLANTA — Every time the Pentagon threatens to close military bases, communities near them fret about the potential loss of jobs on the installations and at businesses that sell to members of the service. Almost no one mentions one of the biggest economic windfalls, the veterans.
Of course, military retirees are attractive residents because of their steady pensions and ample medical care, but even they aren’t the hidden asset. It’s the working-age veterans who constitute a quality work force, experts say.
“Even though the unemployment rate is high, a lot of those companies I talk to can’t find the qualified workers they need. So we’ve been a big advocate of getting those qualified workers out of the military and into the work force,” said Chris Carr, president of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.
Often, the veterans have gained the desired skills in the military, so Georgia has recently streamlined its licensing procedures to transfer those qualifications to civilian certifications.
But a bigger benefit is their so-called soft skills that employers want: punctuality, diligence, cooperation and the ability to follow orders. That’s the reason Kia Motors officials chose a location where they could be close enough to Fort Benning to attract veterans and their spouses, according to Carr.
Labor Commissioner Mark Butler likes to quote a colonel who told him, “The military is a soft-skills factory. If you show up on time in the military, you’re late.”
Butler said when he meets with executives considering locating company operations in Georgia, they always ask about work-force quality, which includes more than just education and demographics but also soft skills.
“We actively sell our veterans,” he said. “That’s a big part of our sales pitch.”
The unemployment rate for veterans in Georgia typically is about a full percentage point below the rate for the overall population. The average rate for vets in 2013 was 7.1 percent, compared to 8.2 percent for the overall population. Nationally, veterans are only half a point better off than the overall work force.
The difference may be due to multiple programs Georgia uses to target veterans.
There are 774,000 of them and more than 100,000 active-duty reservists and members of the National Guard here, forming what they would call a target-rich environment.
The Department of Labor, for instance, holds special job fairs, interview workshops and conducts training sessions for veterans, teaching them how to explain their military experiences in civilian terms.
One of the newest, most ambitious initiatives to help the state exploit that economic gem is the outreach programs of the University System of Georgia and the Technical College System of Georgia. To cater to them, fees are being waived, some schools are matching GI benefits, college credit is being awarded for military experience, and campuses are setting aside lounges and study halls just for veterans.
The two agencies are jointly building a 50,000-square-foot facility near Robins Air Force Base in Warner Robins. At the same time, the University System is building a 21,000-square-foot Liberty Center for Armstrong State University in Hinesville near Fort Stewart.
Armstrong is already operating its Green Zone initiative, which is credited with boosting military students 20 percent annually over the last two years to 800 now. Beyond recruiting students and reserving lounges for them, the program also indoctrinates faculty in how veterans differ from traditional students.
Besides being older, more mature, better traveled and more likely to have families and jobs, those in the services often have already served as leaders, learned how to collaborate and become self-motivated, according to retired Col. Pete Hoffman, director of the Liberty Center. So, they’re likely to view class assignments to teach those skills as time wasters.
“Some of the people who have led troops in combat may not think it is appropriate with things you do with traditional students,” he said.
The guidance he offers professors includes understanding that combat veterans, in particular, may have picked up some survival skills that seem out of place in a classroom, such as not wanting to have anyone sitting behind them or being especially touchy about discussions of foreign affairs. The faculty, who volunteer for the three-phase seminar, also are taught how to recognize symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome.
The lengths Armstrong has gone have earned it a ranking as the 12th most military-friendly college in the country, as evaluated by Military Times, the publisher of newspapers for active service members.