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May 27, 2011 | By James L. Jones and Kevin Schmiegel

This Memorial Day, roughly 1 million veterans will be looking for jobs. The unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans was well above the national average last year, at 11.5%, and more than a quarter of the veterans between the ages of 18 to 24 are without work.

What can be done for these valiant men and women who answered our nation’s call to duty? The solution is twofold. We must do a better job of coordinating public and private sector efforts to help veterans and their spouses find meaningful employment in local communities where they are returning every day. We also need to establish a network of mentors in the business community to help veterans — particularly those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan — transition to the civilian workforce. Both of us attest to the benefits that mentors and mentees gain from such an effort, because it has defined our own relationship, in and out of uniform, for more than 20 years.

We are proud to be part of a nationwide jobs initiative for veterans and military spouses called Hiring Our Heroes, which is founded on these two fundamental principles and focuses on one measure of success: finding jobs for the 1 million unemployed veterans in America.

During the next year, this campaign will work with local chambers of commerce, the administration, and the National Guard and Reserve to connect 100,000 veterans with more than 1,000 different employers during 100 hiring fairs across our country. The first hiring fair took place in Chicago, bringing together more than 125 employers and 1,200 veterans and their spouses. About 150 of them will end up with new jobs.

In addition to these hiring fairs, we created strategic partnerships in three other areas to deal with specific populations of veterans and their unique challenges. They are a Wounded Warrior Transition Assistance Program, a Student Veterans Internship and Employment Program, and a Women Veteran and Military Spouse Employment Program.

While everyone in the business community believes deeply that this is the right thing to do, it’s not charity or just “good PR.” Even with a 9% unemployment rate, a lack of skilled workers is hurting businesses, hindering our economic recovery, and undermining our global competitiveness.

Veterans can help fill this skills gap. They have unique leadership experience and advanced technical expertise. They are excellent problem solvers and are extremely reliable. Businesses want to hire veterans, and 90% of military occupations are directly transferrable to jobs in the private sector.

Ultimately, for this initiative to succeed, local communities must be the cornerstone of any national program to reduce veterans’ unemployment. The reason is simple: When veterans and their families transition from the military, an overriding consideration for them is to get back to a local community where they can be close to family and friends. By targeting resources where we know veterans are and want to be, we can be that much more effective.

We must also look for innovative ways to assist transitioning veterans. This includes helping them launch a small business, providing vocational education and apprenticeships, improving and expediting certification and licensing, and enhancing the availability of internships and mentoring programs.

There is an incredible opportunity to build on the momentum that has brought veterans’ issues to the forefront of America’s psyche and take advantage of what the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently called a “sea of goodwill.” As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The time is always right to do what is right.” It is clear that now is the time to positively affect veterans unemployment and to do it right.

This weekend, as we celebrate the heroic accomplishments and sacrifices made by our veterans, we must always remember that their contributions don’t end when they stop wearing the uniform. It’s time for all Americans to join the fight to put our finest men and women back to work.

Gen. James L. Jones (retired) is the former National Security Advisor and 32nd Commandant of the Marine Corps. He currently serves as a Fellow at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Lt. Col. Kevin Schmiegel (retired) is a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps. He currently is the vice president of Veterans Programs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

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