OPINION: 'Hire Our Heroes' program deserves county consideration

By Jim Runestad

With Veterans Day fast-approaching and both presidential candidates addressing the sluggish economy and high unemployment rates, especially rates for our returning veterans, we need move past empty political rhetoric to help those who have bravely served our country. These vets are returning home from our country's longest war abroad to one of our history's toughest job markets.

To compound matters, due to the Afghanistan draw down, a huge new wave of veterans is posed to return to this sluggish market. The President has estimated that one million people will return to civilian life over the next five years. It is crucial that we ease this transition locally and address the employment prospects of our returning heroes.

U.S. Department of Labor Statistics reports unemployment among active-duty Gulf War era veterans was 12.1 percent in comparison to the country's overall unemployment rate of 8 percent.

The hardest hit groups, with a 29.1 percent unemployment rate, are young male veterans ages 18 to 24, who served during the Gulf War Era II.

Often these returning service members struggle to reintegrate, navigate, and bridge the cultural differences between military and civilian life. After enduring long periods in extreme circumstances, in a heightened state, the adjustment to the ordinary aspects of everyday life can challenging. They are then required to translate these military skills into the civilian marketplace.

Although the solutions can seem daunting, with proper help and mentoring, many of these returning military service members can play an integral role in enhancing our local workforce. They are highly skilled and capable workers who possess a wealth of talents and experience, which include: leadership, enhanced teamwork, adaptability, a strong work ethic, integrity, and aptitude for learning.

These heroes deserve our support and appreciation as they return from active duty home to Oakland County. It was in searching for solutions that fellow Commissioner Dave Woodward and I proposed and introduced the "Hire Our Heroes" resolution to develop a county internship program to help service members translate their military skills into civilian jobs opportunities. Our goal is to build confidence, skills, and to connect veterans with the community to obtain gainful employment. Several counties across the nation such as King County, Wash., Los Angeles County, Calif., Virginia Department of Transportation, and the Port of Seattle have successfully designed and implemented veterans' internship programs, which have been proven very effective.

We envision a county government veterans' internship program that would offer veterans an overview of county government and on-the-job training, while identifying transferable skills which link to support services. The program would provide experience in the civilian work environment and the development of effective skills to compete for job opportunities throughout Oakland County and southeast Michigan.

To ensure success, we have been researching all options and best practices across the nation and have discovered that successful veteran intern programs have tailored programs that recognize and relate to vets' special circumstances and needs. Veterans need to feel a sense of their value to the organization and they also profit from mentoring by other veteran employees to ensure their successful transition. Commissioner support for the program has been wide and bipartisan.

However, an even larger goal is for this program is to create a model for, and inspiration to, our local businesses, foundations, and other municipalities to emulate and expand on-the-job training, work experience, and other tools needed in order to overcome the obstacles our veterans face to become gainfully employed and competitive in the job market. The concept will be discussed and voted upon in the Public Services Committee on November 1st at 9 a.m.

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Jim Runestad serves as an Oakland County Commissioner for District 6 which includes White Lake Township and a portion of Waterford. Runestad is owner and operator of Runestad Financial Associates.

Published: Wed, Oct 31, 2012