Verna Jones, director of the Legion's Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division, talks about the Legion's directory of service officers during the NAACP National Convention. (Photo by Jeff Stoffer)

NAACP addresses vet jobs, benefits

Jobs and VA benefits claims were top agenda items of a veterans affairs workshop given by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Orlando Monday. Top executives from Walmart, Bank of America and Disney gave presentations about their companies’ efforts to hire veterans, and American Legion staff directors were on hand to explain how the nation’s largest veterans service organization is working with VA to reduce the backlog of benefits claims.

Kevin Preston, director of military affairs for the Walt Disney Co., made the point that many who served in combat specialties do not fully understand how to convert those skills into careers. "There’s a challenge in this," he said. "The challenge is building a bridge."

Preston said Disney made a pledge a year and a half ago to hire 300 veterans per year for three years. "Sixteen months into the program, and we have already hired more than 2,000."

He said military experience stimulates entrepreneurship, team-building and a service/mission orientation, all skills employers seek. Veterans and employers, however, have to work together to make the conversion and find the right fit. "It takes a person to help a veteran navigate the process," he said. "One person at a time."

American Legion National Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division Director Verna Jones made a similar point, noting that accredited Legion service officers are working hard, one veteran at a time, to ease the benefits claims process. She explained the Legion’s efforts to improve the system through the new Fully Developed Claims process and VA’s commitment to better prioritize claims that have languished in the backlog for months and even years.

She told veterans gathered for the workshop that NAACP volunteers can help with the claims process by referring veterans in need to accredited service officers who can provide one-on-one support. "If someone local wants to help, they can be a liaison between the veteran and the veterans service officer," Jones said.

She joined American Legion National Membership Director Billy Johnson, National American Legion Human Resources Director Rodney Rolland and National Membership Deputy Director Matt Herndon at the workshop during the NAACP’s convention.

Johnson added that The American Legion provides the kind of personal support network veterans need, whether they are job hunting or filing a claim, or both. "You have to be involved with their lives, from start to finish," Johnson said.

Dayton Warfle, director of Bank of America’s military advisory group, said his company’s veteran employment program is as devoted to retention as it is to recruitment of those who have served. "It’s important that we hire veterans," Warfle said. "It’s equally important that we focus on families."

Bank of America, which sponsored the workshop, received a 2013 Freedom Award from the Department of Defense for its work with veterans and their families, which includes a commitment to find jobs for military spouses who work for Bank of America when a military member of the family moves to a different duty station. Warfle said "every company’s got a different culture," but the Bank of America approach is to get involved with the lives of its military and veteran employees, help them through the process, and the result is retention. "We know that once we get them, we’re going to keep them."

Joe Quinn, a senior director at Walmart, echoed the feelings of the others. "We can look at the data," he said. "We can look at the numbers. We can look at slides. But we also have to put a human face on it."

Quinn spoke of Walmart’s aggressive veteran hiring program, a high priority of the company’s North American CEO, Bill Simon, a Navy veteran who addressed the 93rd American Legion National Convention in Minneapolis. Quinn said Walmart now has over 100,000 veteran employees at all levels and plans to add another 100,000 over the next five years.

The key to connecting them with meaningful careers, he said, is showing how military skills can be converted to career success. He said many veterans need work on such "soft skills" as résumé preparation, interviewing and, essentially, marketing themselves. Once they land jobs, he noted, they are exemplary. "It’s complicated," Quinn said. "It’s not easy, with these young people and what they have been through in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s also a good business decision (to hire veterans)."

Quinn, Warfle and Preston all added that tax credits for employers who hire veterans are not nearly as important as the kind of worker or manager they get from the veteran community. "Tax credits are very far down the food chain in the hiring process," Preston said. "It’s about the quality of the employee."