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Juliette Kayyem

Promoting prosperity

The Bay State should tap veterans’ skills in building its economy

A US army medic from 2-35 Infantry Battalion protects an injured Afghan national army soldier in Kunar province, Afghanistan, last month. Army medics often have to go through extensive retraining to be eligible for similar jobs in the civilian world. A US army medic from 2-35 Infantry Battalion protects an injured Afghan national army soldier in Kunar province, Afghanistan, last month. Army medics often have to go through extensive retraining to be eligible for similar jobs in the civilian world. (Reuters)
By Juliette Kayyem
August 1, 2011

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IT’S CUSTOMARY NOW for governors to be traveling salesmen, promoting their states around the world and seeking foreign investment. Governor Deval Patrick went on just such a road show in March. His destination, like that of so many others, was Israel and its burgeoning economy. When it comes to Israel, however, the more valuable takeaway is the unlikely source that lies behind its economic innovation.

Israel has mandatory conscription. It therefore has no option but to view its veterans as having unique skills that are instantly transferable to capitalist enterprises. The United States, by comparison, views veterans through their disabilities. The way we describe vets - the Wounded Warriors - is hardly inspiring for employers.

Israel has a unique history, being in a state of almost perpetual war, but there is clearly something to the notion of battlefield entrepreneurs. Israel is the “Start-Up Nation,’’ as Dan Senor and Saul Singer describe in a Council on Foreign Relations book. Israel produces more start-up companies than Japan, China, India, and the United Kingdom. Combine Korea, Japan, Singapore, China, India, and all the nations in Europe, and Israel still has more homegrown companies on the NASDAQ. And that’s because of, and not despite, its military class.

What is it about military forces that are so appealing to businesses? Leadership and structure, capacity to work under pressure, attention to detail, a need to work community relations, and the necessary confidence to make decisions with imperfect information. US soldiers also come with education and health care from the Veterans Administration and security clearances attractive to numerous government agencies.

But you wouldn’t know it from the employment numbers. The United States has an unemployment rate of 9.2 percent. For male veterans of the post9/11 wars, ages 18-24, the nationwide unemployment rate is 27 percent. That isn’t a typo.

So how can states like Massachusetts become Start-Up States? How can we promote, and even lure, veterans here? Business leaders tend to focus on immigration and education as the means to buttress our workforce and economic development. There are better ways - ways that go beyond the oft-resented tendency to give extra points to veterans in the government hiring process.

First, revise the antiquated and unforgiving rules regarding licensing for certain professions, including medics and truck drivers. There is no reason why a person fixing war wounds in Baghdad or driving a truck in Kabul shouldn’t be presumed to have work experience that satisfies state rules and regulations. There is no need for new veterans to have to start the credentialing process from scratch.

Second, give tax benefits to companies founded and run by veterans. Massachusetts, or any other state, can be an incubator for an Israeli-type experiment in entrepreneurship. Luring veterans here would also provide funds for our colleges and universities through the GI bill that supports military families. And veterans are more likely to hire other veterans, according to workforce data.

Third, provide incentives to companies that do more than provide tickertape and 10K runs in honor of the heroic troops. A veteran recently told me that stadium Jumbotrons are the 21st-century equivalent of the one-night stand. They’re certainly fun, as the camera focuses on the soldier and the crowds go wild, but then you wake up and realize there wasn’t much substance. Veterans need substantive help, and the state can find ways to reward companies that hire and retain qualified veterans.

Finally, provide increased training to employers on how best to hire and retain service members and their spouses. “Just because the vast majority of Americans haven’t served doesn’t mean that business leaders can’t get literate about military resumes and skills,’’ Senor told me. And that’s true for military spouses, too. Many firms hire from a waiting list, and make promotions or permit flex-time based on seniority. But that works strongly against the military and their spouses, who are often deployed for long stretches on the other side of the world.

Massachusetts isn’t home to a huge military establishment, but it has done more than most states to provide services for veterans of recent wars. As the wars end, it’s time to think offense (with a dose of civic responsibility). Building a workforce of veterans may only require some legal tinkering and a new mindset that sees military experience in terms of skills, not sacrifice.

Juliette Kayyem can be reached at jkayyem@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliettekayyem.