The title of the event left no doubt as to its subject matter. "Veterans Jobs, Jobs, Jobs" headlined the 24th annual Veterans Braintrust gathering on Sept. 21 in Washington, D.C., with American Legion Economic Division Deputy Director Mark Walker representing the Legion on a 12-member discussion panel.
The four-hour examination of veterans' employment issues was staged as part of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) Foundation's 42nd annual Legislative Conference and hosted by U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown, Sanford Bishop, Jr., and CBC founder Charles Rangel.
After opening remarks and introductions by the members of Congress, three African-American military leaders addressed the assembly: Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Lloyd Austin III, Marine Corps Staff Director Lt. Gen. Willie Williams and Coast Guard Pacific Area Commander Vice Adm. Manson K. Brown.
Gen. Austin, former commanding general of the U.S. Forces in Iraq, set the tone by saying, "Our challenge is to continue to find ways that we may better assist our separating or retiring servicemembers. They represent the very best of America. They are highly-disciplined, principled, mission-focused and often mature beyond their years. They've learned a tremendous amount over the course of these wars about the value of hard work and teamwork and, ultimately, leadership. And they've put these skills into practice in some of the most challenging environments on earth.
"Suffice it to say, they will enhance the efforts of any organization or any team that they are a part of. And so I hope that you will continue to talk about them to folks who may be in a position to hire them or support them in some way as they look for opportunities to contribute after transitioning from the military back to civilian life."
Lt. Gen. Williams followed Austin's remarks. He recounted his own rise from southern poverty and overt racial discrimination to a position as third in the USMC's chain of command, behind only the commandant and the assistant commandant.
Meanwhile, Vice Adm. Brown — the first African-American Coast Guard officer to reach three-star rank — reiterated the clarion call for veterans' employment, noting the importance of translatable military-to-civilian skills. He too noted that veterans of the Coast Guard have little difficulty finding civilian employment as compared with veterans of other services. That is because, he postulated, Coast Guard members' experiences in such disciplines as search and rescue and law enforcement are readily recognized with interpretation by civilian employers.
Besides Walker, the other panelists included Kevin Schmeigel, vice president of Veterans Programs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, with whom the Legion is collaborating in an ongoing series of veterans' job fairs;Harry Alford, CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce; Bryon Charlton of the AFL-CIO Veterans Council; Michele Jones from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management; and Rev. E. Terri LaVelle, director of the VA's Faith-Based & Neighborhood Partnerships. Representatives from private industry, including Home Depot and the Walt Disney Company, as well as other veterans' advocates, rounded out the dozen panelists.
Walker recalled the discussion as fruitful, saying, "It was agreed upon that the fight to create a more favorable employment market for veterans should be one of ‘all hands on deck.' The effort should include the public and private sectors, NGOs (non-governmental organizations), faith-based communities and individuals. All are needed to assist veterans and their families in reintegration in civilian life."
According to a recent Department of Labor report, the unemployment rate among black veterans is 12.7 percent, the highest among former servicemembers. The DOL says the unemployment rate for Hispanic veterans is 9.4 percent, while it's 8.1 percent for white veterans and less than 4.5 percent among Asian veterans.