Building a better workforce: Chamber program helps firms gain access to transitioning service members
July 9th, 2019
      Gary Robertson
      Virginia Business

Barry DuVal, president and CEO of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, says his organization’s job is to help the commonwealth become the best state for business.

“The way to do that is to have the best workforce,” he says.

DuVal believes one avenue for achieving that goal is capturing the expertise, enterprise and energy of veterans who are looking for civilian careers.

“That’s where Hire Vets Now came from — having the goal to train more veterans for civilian careers, connecting veterans and their spouses to jobs,” DuVal says.

The program seeks to make contact with service members before they leave active duty. They can learn about job opportunities from chamber members and companies participating in the Virginia Values Veterans (V3) program.

Networking events at the military installations allow service members to meet with employers.

In large part, Hire Vets Now emerged out of conversations among members of the chamber’s Military and Veterans Affairs Executive Committee, DuVal says.

“We had a pilot program in 2018 that resulted in about 445 service members attending. That was nine events, 445 attending,” he explains. “This year we have 16 events scheduled. We expect over 1,300 to attend in 2019.”

The Hire Vets Now program works closely with the Veterans Transition Assistance Program (VTAP) at the Virginia Department of Veterans Services.
Alison Foster, VTAP’s program manager, says that the number of veterans transitioning into civilian life has numbered 12,000 to 14,000 annually during the past two years.

VTAP’s goal, Foster says, is to reach transitioning veterans 12 to 16 months before they leave the military. “People who start planning early have more success,” she says.

Yorktown-based ITA International is one of the Hire Vets Now success stories.

The defense contractor has grown from a single employee in 2005 to more than 400 today.

“About 75% of them are veterans,” said Mike Melo, a former naval officer who is the company’s founder.

Melo says the challenge for transitioning veterans is understanding what the civilian marketplace is looking for. One of the challenges for civilian employers, on the other hand, is understanding the mission-oriented mindset and diverse skills that veterans bring to the table, he adds.

Nationally, veterans are being quickly absorbed into the civilian workforce. In April, the Department of Labor said the veteran unemployment rate in the U.S. was 2.3%, the lowest level since 2000.

Kenneth M. Sullivan, the CEO of Smithfield Foods, announced an initiative in 2016 to make veterans 10% of the company’s domestic workforce. That would be about 4,000 workers.

Schwanzetta Williams, the company’s director of talent acquisition, says she’s not a veteran, but her son is a member of the U.S. Coast Guard and her father was an Army veteran.

Those connections, she says, have been invaluable.

“It’s helped me to gain a broader understanding of some of the challenges our military veterans have as they transition out of the military,” Williams says.

Troy Vandenberg, Smithfield’s military talent acquisition manager, says Virginia’s commitment to hiring veterans and helping them transition to the civilian sector is second to none.

“I definitely think Virginia is leading the way,” Vandenberg says.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The print version of this story misstated the name of Smithfield Foods President and CEO Kenneth M. Sullivan.