Why is it Difficult to Connect U.S. Veterans With Energy Jobs?

By Margaret RyanEnergyAOL Energy

The electric utility industry needs to replace nearly half of its skilled workforce as a generation reaches retirement age in the next few years.

Soldiers, sailors and Marines separating from the armed forces bring education, discipline and a proven work ethic, but confront a higher-than-average unemployment rate.

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Sounds like a ready-made match, so what's stopping it?

That is the question that veterans, their advocates, and businesses are grappling with, experts told a Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) session May 22 in Washington DC.

A Great Fit, But Challenges Remain

The session highlighted release of a report by the National Commission on Energy Policy's Task Force on American's Future Energy Jobs, which calls for a series of federal initiatives to recognize the growing energy field opportunities, and for more funding for energy-related education to ensure critical jobs are filled.

The disconnects the experts identified include job search help that doesn't start till a veteran leaves the service, rules that keep private employers from recruiting on military bases, a confusing plethora of state and federal programs that try to help but aren't coordinated, and the sheer numbers of veterans leaving the service as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down.

Tony Earley, Chairman/CEO of Pacific Gas & Electric, said his company has collaborated with unions, community colleges, and agencies helping separating service members to locate, train and place veterans.

PG&E's Power Pathway focuses on the skills needed in the energy industry, including both traditional skills and new jobs like hybrid and electric vehicle maintenance – jobs Earley says are sustainable and can't be outsourced.

One frustration, he said, is making contact with veterans. In the San Francisco Bay area alone, he said, there are 14 agencies addressing veterans' issues, some good and a few not.

The proliferation of veterans' agencies with different responsibilities and little coordination is a major problem for both potential employers and veterans, several speakers said.

"It's harder than it should be," said Emily De Rocco, President, the Manufacturing Institute, National Association of Manufacturers. Businesses value the veterans' strong work ethic, she said, but now, businesses must match military skills to civilian requirements service by service, and every base commander decides independently whether to allow recruiters to talk to service members on base.

Sean Cartwright, Chief of Staff, Employment & Training Administration, Department of Labor, said his department is aiding nearly 3,000 local programs now, and stresses partnerships with local employers and colleges. His department has recently begun a program to give veterans "six months of intensive assistance" in transitioning to civilian life.

Gen. (Ret.) Jim Jones, a BPC Senior Fellow, said he'd like to see veterans get help finding a job in the six months before they leave the service. Most help is now post-separation, he said, when keeping contact is more difficult.

A veteran in the audience confirmed that point, saying in his experience whatever help is being offered just isn't getting to the people who need it.

Read additional AOL Energy coverage about veterans working in the energy industry as part of the Troops to Energy Jobs initiative, here.

Jones said part of the problem is in the military culture, because the services want to retain the best. But with the shrinking of the military as wars wind down, the services can't keep everyone, and service members should be able to seek jobs ahead of separation, he said.

Kevin Schmiegel, Executive Director of the US Chamber of Commerce's Hiring Our Heroes program, said no one is talking "charity." Rather, he said, "This is a chance at a great opportunity" for companies to hire talented, motivated people.

He said his group is building a map for service members to link job openings with locations. De Rocco said NAM has data "down to the zip codes." All that's needed, she said, is "connectivity."

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