Veterans Meet Demand in Advanced Manufacturing

Returning War Veterans First Choice for Manufacturing Jobs

Thanh Duong got his Army release papers just as the Great Recession was beginning.

“Jobs were nonexistent—at least, jobs you could live on,” says Duong, who goes by Tom, and who drove to California with $500 in his pocket, where he ended up living in his truck for a while and collecting cans for spare change.

He finally got a construction job. But in his free time, Duong liked to tinker with technology.

“That’s when I decided, ‘Hey, maybe I need to go back and learn about engineering.”

Several new programs across the country are linking veterans like Duong with employers, educational institutions, and government agencies to solve two looming problems: above-average unemployment among military veterans and a shortage of skilled workers in advanced manufacturing, information technology, and other fields.

Some will mark Veteran’s Day with job fairs and recruiting events.

“We have 10,000 service members transitioning every single month. They represent a national asset that is underutilized,” says Rob Ivester, deputy director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Manufacturing Office, who started a training program through the government’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory to prepare veterans like Duong for jobs in high-demand careers including energy efficiency, renewable energy, and additive manufacturing.

“At the same time there is this need in the manufacturing community for skilled workers that can operate in a disciplined, team-oriented environment that aligns beautifully with the skill sets of veterans,” Ivester says.

In short, “It’s the perfect partnership,” says Andrew Alcantar, chairman of the Texas Workforce Commission, which runs a similar program called the Veteran and Industry Partnership, or VIP, that trains veterans in petrochemical engineering, advanced manufacturing, and information technology in cooperation with 17 Texas colleges and universities, and which will hold a statewide hiring event on Veteran’s Day week called Hiring Red, White & You.

“When a veteran has received training in the military and was out there doing cybersecurity or working on advanced weapons systems, we know they’re technically specialized, and we know they have the workplace skills—the teamwork, discipline, the ability to get the job done—that employers want,” Alcantar says.

The unemployment rate for veterans of the second Gulf War and later was above 10 percent in September, the latest period for which the figures are available. That’s almost double the unemployment rate for everyone else. Meanwhile, as many as 100,000 high-skilled manufacturing positions are going unfilled, according to the Boston Consulting Group. The Society of Manufacturing Engineers reports that the shortfall could increase to three million.

Despite the availability of jobs in advanced manufacturing, it suffers from perceptions that make traditional-age college students reluctant to consider it, Ivester says.

“You have that image of manufacturing as dull, dirty, dangerous, and declining,” he says. “In reality, modern advanced manufacturing is very smart, it’s very safe, it’s a sustainable job, and it’s surging in this nation.”

In places like western Massachusetts, which has a high concentration of aerospace, defense, and medical-device companies, however, finding qualified employees is “their principal bottleneck,” says David Cruise, president and CEO of the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County, which has also started reaching out to veterans.

“We just realized there was a need here in a sector we felt had some really good opportunities for folks in general and veterans in particular,” Cruise says. “Most veterans we’ve come in contact with are smart, disciplined, and detail-oriented. They have a really good work ethic and understand the importance of working in a team, which in these smaller companies is fairly critical.”

The Hampden County program is still small; it’s graduated 32 veterans so far. But the placement rate is an impressive 72 percent. That’s in a region where a June survey found that local companies will need 683 new production employees, but conventional education institutions will produce just 284 graduates who can do those jobs.

“Because of the focus and discipline that’s required for this additive and advanced manufacturing process, a lot of veterans are perfect for that kind of job,” says Scott DeVore, a veteran of the Navy Seabees who is also in the Oak Ridge program.

And it’s not just those skills, says Gary Marlow, another veteran, who lives in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. “It’s a lot of the other stuff veterans bring to the table—the loyalty, the tenacity, the creativity. You’re going to get more bang for your buck out of a guy who served in the military.”

Employers think so too, and not just because hiring a veteran makes them eligible for up to $9,600 in tax credits on federal business income and payroll taxes.

“We look for leaders because we are a very fast-paced business, and veterans are accustomed to being able to make quick decisions,” says Michelle Rochon, director of talent management for the global industrial supply company WESCO International in Pittsburgh, which has increased its hiring of veterans by 44 percent since 2012 in partnership with Oak Ridge and other programs. “They tend to be excellent problem-solvers.”

As for Duong, he’s now learning 3D printing in the manufacturing process, for which he says his time in the military was ideal preparation.

“From that experience of being out there and doing the things I needed to do to survive life,” he says, “now I have a foundation for all the things I’m learning.”

 Photo credit: George Frey/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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