Washington Targets Veterans for State Employment

As troops begin returning home from Afghanistan, states are looking for ways to reduce veterans' high unemployment rate. Washington state wants to hire them.

Chuck Kennedy/MCT
As troops begin returning home from Afghanistan, what the government is doing to help them transition back to civilian life is increasingly more important. As Dylan Scott pointed out in the March issue of Governing, states and localities  have been particularly active in helping veterans find work.

Nearly every state has a veterans’ preference when it comes to internal hires; some -- including Delaware and Oklahoma -- either have or are considering tax incentives for private employers who hire ex-military; and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal just signed a bill into law this week to make it easier for former military members to get business licenses. 

Other states are going even further. On April 1, the governor of New Mexico announced a pilot program to hire recently discharged service members as firefighters during the upcoming wildfire season. Washington -- a forward-thinking state when it comes to veterans affairs given its large military population -- is trying to do something a little more permanent.

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Nearly 9 percent of Washington’s population is veterans (higher than the state average of 7.7 percent), and their unemployment rate is more than double that of the general population’s. So last year, then-Gov. Christine Gregoire created a task force with a representative from every state agency to figure out how to attract more vets to state employment. The overall goal was to match veterans with jobs that fit the skills they learned in the military -- something that can be difficult in the private sector -- and help them advance through the ranks. Not only would this help decrease the unemployment rate, the state would benefit from the vets' extensive training and knowledge. The task force, which is made up entirely of veterans working for the state, is known as the Veteran Employment Resource Group (VERG).

I spoke with Bill Allman, a VERG member who served in the Navy during the Vietnam War and now works for the state’s Health Care Authority, to learn about what the task force has come up with so far. His responses, edited for clarity and length, appear below.

What was the idea behind VERG?

Gov. Gregoire said, “I can’t expect the private sector to focus on hiring veterans unless we set an example.” So she asked us to put together a process to attract veterans to the workforce and work closely with veterans that are already in state government to make sure they’re aware of the path to advancement that’s available and how they might acquire other positions that are directly related to the position they held in the service.

So, for example, say you were a supply clerk in the military who now works as a corrections officer for the state but you’d like to get into the supply clerk thing again. Part of our job will be to tell you the positions you might want to keep an eye out for.

What will VERG do for veterans?

This is a two-prong approach: We want to figure out how to track returning veterans to get them information on joining state service and also determine how to help veterans who are already in the workforce but might feel left out. Right now, those vets might think they’re just lucky to have a job, but they should know that their expertise in certain areas would be highly valued by the state.

We’re looking into setting up a mentoring program where we’d match the current veterans in our workforce with incoming ones. Part of that will be dependent on getting an accurate number of the veterans serving in our agencies. Decades ago, agencies had a veteran quota to meet. But today, human resources sometimes doesn’t even ask if a person was a veteran during the hiring process. So right now, we’re putting together an agency survey that will go out to all employees to get an accurate count.

We want to attract the best and the brightest like, for example, those working in IT. IT experience in the military is very coveted, and rather than letting those veterans go to the private sector -- which might pay more -- we’d like to attract them here.

Is a program like this necessary, especially if there’s already a veteran hiring preference in place?

The veterans preference has really always been in place, but I think it’s become accepted as just normal -- not necessarily an exceptional thing to do. It was just another preference, and there wasn’t any particular effort concentrated on veterans before.

Sometimes with [hiring preferences], you’re doing it just to say that you have it, but you don’t really have an intent on trying to be proactive -- and that’s frustrating. It can be the best idea in the whole world, but some places don’t do anything until they have to. We don’t want to wait until the last minute and do something when it becomes an emergency.

So why start a veterans program now?

Our state Department of Veterans Affairs [VA] is really forward-thinking. They always have their finger on the pulse of what’s happening, and a lot of that has to do with our huge military population. Statewide, our unemployment rate is around 8.5 percent. But for veterans, it’s over 17 percent.

How many veterans work in Washington state government today?

I think I heard somewhere in the vicinity of 7 percent, but that was awhile back. It’s hard to get an accurate count because a lot of human resources people for whatever reason don’t track all the veterans.

Are certain departments more suited to hiring veterans?

First of all, unemployment offices. There’s at least one veterans coordinator in all unemployment offices statewide, so you want to ensure you hire a veteran for that position because in my experience, vets relate best to other vets. If I was a veteran coordinator for unemployment, I would wake up every day looking forward to going to work so I could hook vets up with jobs.

Also, you have IT folks. I know our IT department in the state Health Care Authority has particular interest in hiring veterans because the military has state-of-the-art computer equipment and training. They could be a valuable asset to us.

State colleges might be another area that I think would offer a number of positions, particularly as they work to help bring in veterans who want to use the GI Bill.

Where does the program stand now?

Gov. Jay Inslee’s office is working on a new executive order to help our work along and lay out how he expects all agencies to proceed in this area. Meanwhile, our task force is still meeting and making progress.

We’re going to military bases like Fort Lewis and putting up flyers and disseminating information to all active-duty military that are within six months of discharge to let them know about a job fair where human resources from all the state agencies will be. If the job fair goes well, we want to do it in all areas of the state. We want to show them that a lot of what they do can be translated into a position in state government. We want them, they already have a preference in hiring, so why not take advantage of that?

We already hold open communications forums in my agency where we invite all employees in the agency to come and learn about whatever the topic is for the week, such as retirement. We’re also going to start having presentations specifically for veterans where my counterparts at the VA will come over to give an overview of the veterans benefits available to state employees, where they might find career advancement, and how that fits their MOS (military occupation specialties). We already have a crossblock for veterans that matches specialties with which jobs they might be best suited for in state government.

We’re also keeping up with the veterans we already have employed. Recognition is a key part of what we’re doing. We want to make sure that not a veteran-related day goes by that we don’t plan and coordinate recognition activities. That part was missing back in the Vietnam era because then, you wanted to keep from being recognized.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.