Welcoming Veterans to Port Ranks

Two recent veteran fellows with Port of Seattle CEO Tay Yoshitani during a Veterans Day event at Sea-Tac on November 6, 2013.

Two recent veteran fellows with Port of Seattle CEO Tay Yoshitani during a Veterans Day event at Sea-Tac on November 6, 2013.

Two ports are finding ways to assist military members with transition to civilian employment.

By Meredith Martino

While the economic downturn of the past several years has hit all job seekers hard, veterans and members of the military transitioning from soldier to civilian roles have been the focus of particular attention in the United States. As service members end tours of duty abroad in Iraq and Afghanistan, many have been struggling to find work at home.

According to Ross Cohen, Senior Director at Hiring Our Heroes, a program of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, the rolling average unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans has declined from thirteen percent to nine percent in the past two to three years. However, with the U.S. drawdown of forces abroad and the pullout of troops from Afghanistan, 1.5 million service members will be leaving the military in the next five years.

Many private sector companies have made large hiring commitments, either on their own or as part of larger concerted effort. While public sector agencies do not have as much autonomy in adding full time positions to their roles, efforts within two ports are paying dividends for veterans and may serve as models for others in the port industry seeking to support transitioning service members.

Assisting with Transition in Seattle

In 2007, when Tay Yoshitani assumed the position of chief executive officer at the Port of Seattle, he wanted to find a way to help transitioning service members and veterans into full-time employment, a passion of United States Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA). Yoshitani, himself a veteran of the U.S. Army, felt that the port had an obligation and duty to do something to help veterans find employment.

“As a public agency, we have a special responsibility on issues that are important in society right now,” Yoshitani said.

The Port of Seattle Veterans Fellowship Program, created in 2007 with strong support from both the Port Commission and staff, assists veterans in transitioning from active duty to the civilian work environment. The program supports transitioning service members through exposure and experience in the civilian workplace while refining skills and abilities necessary for successful integration into civilian organizations.

Every six months, the port welcomes two or three fellows – individuals who just ended their service or are in the process of exiting the military. The port matches those individuals with positions that fit their background and career aspirations. Past fellows have served in operations, public relations, engineering and legal departments, among other fields.

“These fellows provide value to the port, but we also help them make the transition by helping them arranage interviews in and out of the port,” Yoshitani explained, emphasizing that fellows receive pay and full benefits during their term.

The fellows who have on with the port in long-term positions, others have moved on to other positions outside the organization and a few have re-upped with the military.

In 2012, the port received a Department of Defense Freedom Award, the highest recognition given by the U.S. government to employers for their support of their employees who serve in the Guard and Reserve. Since 2007, the Port of Seattle has also been a member of Hire America’s Heroes, a Pacific Northwest-based organization that connects America’s major corporations with the military service members and their families for the purpose of employment in the corporate workforce. Hire America’s Heroes also has a California Steering Committee that provides leadership for the organization in California.

Commitment to Hiring in New York and New Jersey

On the East Coast, nearly 350 veterans will be hired within the Port of New York and New Jersey this year, thanks to details of a contract recently agreed to by the International Longshoreman’s Association (ILA) and the New York Shipping Association (NYSA). The ILA and the NYSA announced the commitment to veterans’ hiring on Veterans Day 2011, and the final contract was negotiated in 2013.

Jim McNamara, director of public relations for the ILA, explained, “We knew there was going to be a time where they would have to bring in new people [to the port]to replace retiring workers and those leaving, as well as to address projected cargo increases.” He elaborated that hiring veterans is “a no-brainer because service members come back with a lot of training, and many have experience with vessels and cranes. They are highly motivated workers with good backgrounds.”

The final contract includes a formula that stipulates 51 percent of new hires will be veterans. Since approximately 680 jobs within the port are expected to become available this year, just under 350 veterans are expected to be hired.

“The New York Shipping Association cannot think of a stronger, more diverse group than U.S. veterans to join our workforce here in the Port of New York and New Jersey,” said NYSA President John Nardi. “Hiring these individuals who have shown their discipline and dedication to our country is good business. These returning soldiers have the training, skills and adaptability that will make them assets to our waterfront industry.”

Opportunities for the Future

Hiring Our Heroes’ Cohen emphasized that there are many opportunities for ports and others in the maritime industry to assist in the training and hiring of veterans and transitioning service members. In 2014, Hiring Our Heroes is planning to host 662 job fairs in all 50 states. The organization, which has spent much of the recent past on creating tools for members of the military, is going to focus in the future on employer needs and on creating tools for human resources managers and recruiters to use, with a goal of ensuring that there is a good fit between employers and new hires and that employment is as successful as possible.

Port of Seattle’s Yoshitani stated that a goal of his port’s program has always been to get other ports interested in implementing similar programs. “Our long-term hope is that this is not a competitive advantage for the port,” he said. “We wanted to roll it out, get the bugs out and market it to other organizations to encourage them to adopt this program or something similar.”

At least one organization has followed suit. Alaska Airlines, the Port of Seattle’s largest business partner (in addition to its seaport operations, the Port of Seattle operates Sea-Tac International Airport), has adopted a program similar to the Port of Seattle Veterans Fellowship Program.

Even without creating training or transition programs of their own, Cohen emphasized that ports can play an important role as conveners within their community.

“Ports can connect veterans with suppliers and stakeholders,” said Cohen. “They can provide coordination to leverage stakeholders to make commitments and highlight success stories.”