Bill OKs hiring veterans first

HANCOCK COUNTY — The county’s 6,300 military veterans could get a little help on the employment front if a bill prompted by Walmart and co-authored by state Sen. Michael Crider makes its way out of the Legislature this session.

Senate Bill 298 was written by Crider, R-Greenfield, Sen. Amanda Banks, R-Columbia City, and Sen. James Arnold, D-LaPorte.

The bill would allow private employers to develop a preferential employment policy in the hiring, promoting and retaining of veterans.

Already unanimously approved by the Senate, the bill now heads to the House for consideration.

Indiana’s nearly 400,000 veterans receive state assistance finding employment and securing state contracts, but this would be the first time private sector employers would be allowed by law to formulate written policies to give veterans preference “for hiring, promoting or retaining a veteran over another qualified applicant or employee,” the bill reads.

Crider, chairman of the Senate standing committee on veteran affairs and the military, said a national push by Walmart to hire thousands of veterans prompted him to join in the bill.

“Walmart is trying to hire about 10,000 veterans nationwide, and it would be currently prohibited from doing that if there was no Indiana statute (that allowed it to prefer veterans over other applicants),” Crider said. “Having a couple of Walmarts in my district, I was sympathetic to that request, and I think it’s a worthwhile project to get that many veterans in the pipeline.”

In 2013, Walmart and Sam’s Club rolled out a veterans hiring initiative with the goal of hiring 100,000 veterans by 2018, according to Walmart’s website.

At the state level, veterans are given hiring preference for state government jobs, though the preference does not rise to the level of a protected class status, said Joe Frank, department of workforce development communications director.

“We absolutely understand the importance of getting veterans, especially those that have been deployed and who are returning, back into the workforce as soon as possible.”

Secondly, the state seeks to award 3 percent of its competitive contracts for goods and services to veteran-owned businesses, a program that continues to grow.

“Last year we had more veteran-owned businesses involved with state government than in any previous year,” Frank said.

Veterans also get a leg up at the state’s WorkOne centers, where the veteran service program allows veterans to move to the front of the line and provides veterans service officers to provide career counseling and help with employment needs.

Help from the state is one thing, but getting a nudge forward in the private sector can have a significant impact.

According to statistics from the Indiana Department of Workforce Development, the unemployment rate for veterans overall runs at more than 8 percent, some 2.2 points above the state’s recently released figure of 5.8 percent.

For the state’s 25,600 post-9/11 veterans, more than half of whom are 25 to 34, some 15 percent are unemployed, workforce development figures show.

In Hancock County, the employment picture for veterans is the same.

“The unemployment rate for veterans is higher than that of the regular population; and if we get that kind of help (provided by the bill), that would be good,” said Hancock County Veterans Service Officer Bob Workman.

Tony Cross, commander at Greenfield’s Dale E. Kuhn American Legion Post 119, is CEO of Operation: Job Ready in Indianapolis, which provides transitional training and services for veterans. He said measures such as Senate Bill 298 are “a very good idea,” but the larger issue lies in getting employers to understand what skills the veterans have.

“We’re trying to teach companies what it means to be a (gunnery sergeant,)” Cross said. “You’ve got a ‘gunny’ who made $80,000 in combat and now comes back to work for $12 an hour. That’s difficult.”

Although there might be a perception that America has wound down its combat operations, the line of returning combat veterans has not ended, he said.

“Indiana is the fourth-largest National Guard state,” Cross said.

“We have young National Guard vets who have been deployed three and four times. We still have people coming back.”