Past Patriotism: A Coalition To Train Veterans for Manufacturing Jobs

To fill advanced manufacturing jobs, a new coalition of employers will train veterans, and help them to translate their wartime skills to civilian use, writes GE Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Immelt.

Jim R. Bounds, Bloomberg / Getty Images

In 1999, as soon as he completed high school and following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, Lionel Hamilton enlisted to serve his country. He worked as a helicopter mechanic before ultimately becoming a pilot. He flew a Blackhawk in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, where he helped save countless lives by transporting soldiers out of danger.

Lionel still works on flying machines. Today, he oversees assembly at a GE jet engine testing facility in Peebles, Ohio.

Lionel Hamilton is doing something else, too. He is answering a key question in the debate on how we build a growing and sustainable American economy. That question is not whether companies are hiring again. Manufacturing companies, large and small, are ready to hire. The question is: where can these companies find the qualified, skilled workers required for the high-tech jobs that define advanced manufacturing today?

It turns out that many companies are looking, with great success, at veterans like Lionel, both those just transitioning back to civilian life and those who have made that transition but are still looking for meaningful work. That is why the Manufacturing Institute, companies like GE, Alcoa, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, community colleges, veterans organizations, and others are launching a coalition to bolster the manufacturing talent pipeline by training veterans for jobs in advanced manufacturing. Our reason is not patriotism alone.

Manufacturing currently employs about 12 million people, and both the pay and benefits in those jobs exceed the national average. Approximately seven out of every 10 dollars of our country’s R&D investments support manufacturing. The point is that while the methods of manufacturing have changed, it remains a critical component of our country’s economic future. We know that there are 600,000 open high-tech jobs, just waiting to be filled. With transition support and training, vets can succeed in these jobs.

Manufacturers need skilled workers. More than two and a half million workers will retire in the next decade. The number has recently decreased slightly, but there are still nearly one million unemployed veterans, many of whom are young and looking to start a meaningful career. When you add the technical proficiency and the list of intangible qualities from leadership to loyalty that they bring with them to the job, veterans are a perfect fit.

The need is obvious. The challenge is matching their skills to job openings, to help them find the right jobs now. According to new research, veterans and active duty soldiers who will be soon transitioning into civilian life are confident that they can contribute. They worry, however, that they will be undervalued and that their skills may not readily transfer to the workforce.

To address the mismatch between skills and jobs, the "Get Skills to Work" coalition will begin by helping 15,000 veterans translate their military experience to advanced manufacturing opportunities or by providing training in the technical skills needed to qualify for careers that can support a family and build a future worthy of their service and talents.

Specifically, the coalition will do three things:

Train: First, while many veterans come to the workforce with some technical proficiency, their skills are not necessarily the right skills for available advanced manufacturing jobs. To help better prepare veterans whose military service experience doesn’t qualify them for these types of jobs, the coalition will work with local community and technical colleges to provide accredited “fast track” training in core manufacturing technical skill areas. Working with regional supply chains, manufacturers and schools will partner to ensure that the certifications meet the skills needs of local employers so that veterans who complete the program are better equipped to compete for open positions.

Translate skills and match: Second, too often when our veterans do have the required skills, it gets lost in translation; employers don’t understand the military’s language, and vice versa, as it pertains to identifying skill sets. The coalition will work with partners to create a digital “badging system.” When supply chain partners of large manufacturers, for example, post a job opening online they won’t overlook a qualified veteran who has relevant experience and talents but a military job title that doesn’t translate.

Build awareness: Finally, the coalition will provide a toolkit to help employers more effectively recruit, on-board, support, and mentor veterans in the civilian workforce.

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Being a leader and mission-driven helps get the job done on the battlefield. By employing these same qualities, we can help make America the world’s leader in advanced manufacturing. Lionel Hamilton is proof of that, as are his colleagues in Durham, N.C., where 40 percent of GE’s employees are veterans working in self-directed teams. We hope other manufacturers will join the coalition and the cause. We believe that, by focusing on our veterans, by targeting training specific to advanced manufacturing and by taking the extra but necessary step of matching competencies to need and actual job openings, we can do more than talk about the skills gap.

Together, we can close it.