WASHINGTON — With veterans returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in search of employment, first lady Michelle Obama on Monday praised the construction industry for committing to hire 100,000 veterans over the next five years.
“That’s a number that gets me out of bed in the morning,” Obama said.
According to a January Bureau of Labor Statistics report, post-9/11 veterans are unemployed at a rate of 7.9 percent, 2.1 percent higher than the unemployment rate among all veterans and 1.3 points higher than the national jobless rate. However, the jobless rate for post-9/11 vets last month improved from the October rate of 10 percent.
Obama announced the construction initiative in a Wall Street Journal op-ed Monday, then celebrated it in front of hundreds of cheering people — some even standing on chairs to snap an iPhone picture of her — at the National Symposium on Veterans’ Employment in Construction at the Department of Labor.
The industry-wide commitment brings together more than 100 construction companies.
“When you have employers who frequently are competing with each other coming together to ensure that the hiring of veterans is part of the DNA of their organization, I think that’s a real force multiplier and that’s what’s so different about what we’re doing here,” Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez said.
Obama called on other industries to match the builders’ pledge. Perez said the Department of Labor hopes to establish similar partnerships with other industries but did not name the specific sectors.
“We’re really going to try to go to school on this, learn from it,” Perez said. “Imitation is a form of flattery.”
Obama called the construction companies’ promise to hire more veterans a smart business decision. The industry has an annual growth rate of 2.6 percent, and it is projected to increase jobs by more than 1.5 million by 2022, according to labor bureau data.
Ken Simonson, chief economist at the Associated General Contractors of America, attributed the projected growth in the construction industry to building resulting from increased oil and gas drilling. Following the recession, the industry is now catching up with years of underinvestment, he said.
Veterans’ issues have been a major focus for both Obama and second lady Jill Biden since the early days of President Barack Obama’s administration. They have headed the “Joining Forces” initiative to bring attention to services for military families and veterans, especially as the number of vets increase with troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
At Monday’s event, two veterans who have successfully transitioned to jobs in construction told their stories. Marine Corps Capt. (ret.) Larry Melton, now a project executive for Bechtel Co., said veterans have skills that are critical to the success of construction companies.
Army Sgt. (ret.) Katie Sanicky, a single mom who now works as an ironworker apprentice, praised the Helmets to Hardhats program for helping her find a second career in a field where it is not traditional for women to work. The program helps qualified veterans transition back to civilian life with federally approved apprenticeship training in building and construction.
“I didn’t want to be viewed as just a woman, but as a future leader,” Sanicky said of her Army tenure and civilian career.
Following the announcement Monday, the Labor Department hosted a series of roundtable discussions on how veterans could prepare for these construction jobs through employment services available at American Job Centers.