How the Fortune 500 can help bring veterans home

May 8, 2012: 3:09 PM ET

Business and military leaders discuss how corporations should help the current generation of long-serving veterans enter the workforce.

FORTUNE -- Most people in charge of hiring for big companies would toss a resume with no previous job experience in the trash. But companies might need to view job experience differently. Soon, discharged men and women from the armed forces will be coming home and looking for work. Many will have spent a large chunk, if not all, of their time since 9/11 far from the private sector.

"We've been off fighting for our country for the last 11 years and the American people have been getting on with their lives," said Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Monday at the first official Fortune 500 dinner at the New York Stock Exchange in Manhattan. The event focused on how the military and Fortune 500 companies should help veterans integrate into the workforce.

The two sides are often divided by a language gap, and companies might not immediately recognize the leadership and technical skills that former military personnel have cultivated in their years of service. On the flip side, many discharged men and women need help communicating their skills to civilians -- helping veterans see their attributes outside the military context and cutting out the jargon in their speech.

It's a pressing issue: By 2014, President Obama has said, Afghanistan will run its own democracy. The U.S. currently has about 90,000 troops stationed there. In the next two years, many of them will be coming home, some after multiple tours of service.

MORE: 6 companies hiring vets

Many of these vets will need training and support, but once they get it, Mullen says, they will thrive and companies will reap the benefits: "They're creative and innovative, they perform well under pressure, they have tremendous skills and potential, and for the price of a very small investment on the part of America, I believe [they'll] perform at a spectacularly high level."

Admiral Mike Mullen

Admiral Mike Mullen

Corporate America will need to view veterans with an open mind, as many could easily perform well in a seemingly unrelated sector such as, say, banking. J.P. Morgan Chase (JPM) CEO Jamie Dimon, who attended the dinner, spoke of the bank's goal of employing 100,000 veterans. The bank is currently hiring vets at a rate of about 10-per-day, he said.

Companies stand to benefit not just from hiring returning military officers with MBAs already in hand, but also those who don't have a higher education. Getting an honorable discharge from the military means something, even if the person who received it doesn't have a high school diploma, argued Gordon Bethune, former CEO of Continental, who enlisted in the Navy when he was 17 years old. "We like people with an honorable discharge," Bethune said, "because it shows that they came to work and did their job."

MORE: How Amazon learned to love veterans

Leaders at companies should evaluate how they can create a mutually beneficial veteran hiring system, said Alex Gorsky, former Army Ranger captain and Johnson & Johnson's (JNJ) newly minted CEO. For him, he said, events such as the dinner last night highlight how much more the business community can do.

Still, the discussion itself is progress, said Bethune. "I'm a Vietnam guy, and it was a different country we came home to, it was a shock. Look, a gathering like this didn't happen, No big shots ever got together in a room and worried about us.

"Where we can do the most good is to give them a chance, give them a job."

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Shelley DuBois
Shelley DuBois
Writer - Reporter, Fortune

Shelley DuBois writes on management issues for Fortune.com. Before joining Fortune, she was a producer for National Public Radio's Science Friday and worked for Wired. Shelley has a graduate degree in science, health and environmental reporting from New York University. She lives in Brooklyn.

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