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Investing in America's veterans

​Jeffrey Immelt

Editor's note: This is an excerpt from an article in the December 2012/January 2013 edition of the Community College Journal, the bimonthly magazine of the American Association of Community Colleges​.

As soon as he completed high school, Lionel Hamilton followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and enlisted to serve his country. He worked as a helicopter mechanic before ultimately becoming a pilot, flying a Blackhawk in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, where he helped save countless lives by transporting soldiers out of danger.

Lionel still works on flying machines. Today, he oversees assembly at a GE jet engine testing facility in Peebles, Ohio. He’s doing something else, too. Lionel is helping to answer a key question in the debate on how we build a growing and sustainable American economy. And the question is not whether companies are ready to hire—they are. The question is how we find the skilled workers to excel at the high-tech jobs that will drive our economy forward.

Providing the training

Many companies are looking, with great success, at veterans. The transition from the military to a career in manufacturing came naturally to Lionel. His service made him a leader and a disciplined, strategic thinker with an unmatched ability to make decisions and operate in teams—intangible skills that manufacturers across the country are seeking. Many veterans, however, are finding the transition from service to the private sector complicated either by an inability to translate military skills to job qualifications or by a shortage of technical talent.

That is why the Manufacturing Institute​ and companies such as GE, Alcoa, Boeing and Lockheed Martin have joined with community colleges, veterans’ organizations and others to launch a coalition to bolster the manufacturing talent pipeline by training veterans for jobs in advanced manufacturing and giving them the tools they need to compete for the jobs of the future.

The severity of our nation’s talent gap and its implications on our growth prospects demand that public and private entities unite to help veterans overcome these challenges and find an attainable path to meaningful work. Manufacturing currently employs about 12 million people, and both the pay and benefits in those jobs exceed the national average. It remains a critical component of our country’s global competitive advantage, and the inability of companies to find talent to fit their needs is a real challenge. With more than 2.5 million workers retiring in the next decade, more than 600,000 positions already unfilled in the industry, and nearly 1 million unemployed veterans, we cannot afford to let this talent go to waste.

Three-pronged approach

The Get Skills to Work ​coalition will focus on three key elements:

#1 Train. First, while many veterans come to the workforce with some technical proficiency, their skills are not necessarily the right skills for available advanced manufacturing jobs. To help better prepare veterans whose military service experience doesn’t qualify them for these types of jobs, the coalition will work with local community and technical colleges to provide accredited “fast track” training in core manufacturing technical skill areas.

#2 Translate skills and match. Second, too often when our veterans do have the required skills, it gets lost in translation; employers don’t understand the military’s language, and vice versa, as it pertains to identifying skill sets. The coalition will work with partners to create a digital “badging system.” When supply chain partners of large manufacturers, for example, post a job online, they won’t overlook a qualified veteran who has relevant experience and talents but a military job title that doesn’t translate.

#3 Build awareness. Finally, the coalition will provide a toolkit to help employers more effectively recruit, onboard, support and mentor veterans in the civilian workforce.

We set a goal of matching 100,000 veterans to advanced manufacturing jobs by 2015, but we need help to get there. That means more companies willing to contribute resources and support, more organizations identifying and recruiting veterans and more higher education partners installing training programs that meet evolving industry needs. What better way to repay our veterans than to ensure they are equipped with the tools to thrive once they come home.

Immelt is the chairman and CEO of GE.