Central Ohio's private companies and public agencies are working hard to employ and retain the veterans and reservists returning to the civilian workforce.

At approximately 1400 hours on a cloudless April afternoon, 22 business men and women were flying 20,000 feet above central Ohio on an Air National Guard KC-135 Stratotanker instead of sitting at their desks. These "bosses" of private industry and public agencies were learning first-hand what military reservists do on those weekends away from their civilian jobs. All were guests on a "Bosslift" aerial refueling mission hosted by the Ohio committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve.

The Ohio ESGR hosts five to six of these employer-outreach flights annually from Rickenbacker Air National Guard base. The refueling missions are just one of the ways in which ESGR connects military and reserve members with potential employers.

Military reservists and members of the National Guard often balance civilian jobs with part-time reserve service. These forces have always played a critical role in national defense, though "certainly not the way it is today," says Robert "Lance" Meyer, a retired Air Force major general and the Ohio ESGR Bosslift coordinator.

Since the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the federal government has increasingly relied on these forces, putting more pressure on reservists and their civilian employers when these troops are called to active duty.

"There was a need for this organization to step up and work to strengthen the relationship between reserve and civilian employers," says Meyer. Established in 1972, the ESGR is a Department of Defense organization comprised of more than 4,700 volunteers who advocate for the hiring of guard and reserve members. ESGR also acts as a mediator between employers and employees as they negotiate the tricky balance between military service and professional obligations.

Ohio's approximately 28,000 National Guard and reserve service members hold civilian jobs with more than 7,000 employers statewide, according to ESGR. Eighty-five percent of those employees have been called up to active duty during their reserve service. That can be demanding for employer and employee alike.

"Sometimes it can be tricky, but that's just part of what it is," says U.S. Air Force Reserve Maj. Trevor Sthultz, who is also a full-time energy coordinator for American Electric Power. "You just try to balance two separate worlds, two separate careers, two separate schedules. You multitask and stay organized as best you can."

Sthultz's USAFR duties as a squadron commander require him to report to the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station in New York for three-to-four days monthly in addition to several two-week periods throughout the year. Reserve and guard service commitments vary by branch and rank, but generally require enlistees to report, at a minimum, for one weekend a month and one longer block of time every year.

"It (takes) close coordination with my managers," says Sthultz. He multitasks to stay on top of both duties, carrying his AEP cell phone with him to Niagara Falls and working on his Air Force laptop from Columbus. Reserve weekends are scheduled in advance, and Sthultz has already provided AEP with his 2015 drill schedule. Still, unexpected training events pop up from time to time. Flexibility from both AEP and the USAFR is crucial to meeting his responsibilities to each.

"The military side understands, we try to lessen the impacts as best we can on the civilian employer. And AEP especially is very good with flexibility, understanding what is required," says Sthultz. "We really bend over backwards here-at least from my perspective-to help the reservists meet their schedules."

The rewards of employing guard and reserve members far outweigh the challenges, say local executives. Central Ohio companies are aggressively targeting reservists and veterans for employment. Local businesses cite the strong skill set and work ethic that veterans bring to the workplace-along with a deep respect for the service provided by military men and women.

"The qualities that veterans acquire in the armed services-such as teamwork, respect of procedures, leadership and decision making-those are qualities that we're looking for in employees," says Scott Smith, senior vice president for AEP transmission grid-development and portfolio services.

AEP targets veterans as they transition from active military service to the reserve and to civilian careers; the company wants to reap the benefit of the training and skills soldiers develop in the line of duty. Since early 2012, AEP has increased its veteran workforce from nine to 12 percent among its nearly 20,000-employee base. AEP CEO Nick Akins has tasked his direct reports with increasing that percentage even further, says Smith.

"Veterans are spread throughout all the various disciplines at AEP. They always make a very good fit," Smith says. A number of AEP positions are centered around technical skills that are highly developed among members of certain military and reserve branches. For example, Navy veterans may best utilize their experience working on AEP's barge fleet, the second largest in the nation. Military men and women are highly valued in both the cybersecurity and the construction aspects of AEP's power grid operations, says Smith.

Former U.S. Army Capt. Smith began his civilian career in the financial sector. He joined AEP in 2001. In his current role, he utilizes the leadership and engineering skills he gained as an Army combat engineer. Smith says he left his own reserve service because of a lack of support from his previous employers as he climbed the corporate ladder. "They met the minimum guidelines, but it really wasn't embraced early in my career," Smith says.

"I think there was and still is a swell of patriotism after 9/11. I've seen many corporations step up to the challenge to support the veterans," says Smith, adding "there's always more that any company can do."

The federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit allows employees to claim as much as $9,600 per veteran hired. All civilian employers and service men and women are bound by the federal Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA). State and local governments enact their own legislation covering veterans and reservists, also.

USERRA is as complex as any employment-law issue, yet its basics are "very straightforward and very fair" for employers and employees, says Dennis McCarthy, a principal of C3 Strategy Group and Military Experts. McCarthy and his sons Michael and Sean-all veterans-founded both consulting firms to advise veterans and employers (C3) and provide professional legal advice on veteran matters (Military Experts).

"The overall performance of American employers since 9/11 has been little short of spectacular," says McCarthy. A Columbus-based attorney, retired Marine Lt. Gen. McCarthy ended his military career as commander of the Marine Forces Reserve. President Obama nominated him assistant secretary of defense, a position in which McCarthy was responsible for developing and implementing National Guard and reserve policies and overseeing the ESGR national committee.

"The vast majority of employers have embraced USERRA," he says. "That's why the exceptions stick out like a sore thumb."

McCarthy believes that most USERRA violations occur out of ignorance rather than intent. According to the Ohio ESGR's Meyer, 70 percent of the 200 employment disputes brought to the agency every year are resolved by ESGR ombudsmen before they progress to Department of Labor investigations or district court civil complaints.

USERRA's most recent revisions were made in a pre-9/11 era when most guard and reservists were called to involuntary active duty once or twice in their careers; today, reserve forces are called up repeatedly every four to five years throughout their service, says McCarthy. Despite the additional burden that places on civilian employers, he says that many have "gone way, way beyond the minimum requirements of USERRA."

AEP's Sthultz sought employment with the company specifically because of its military-friendly culture. During his civilian job hunt, Sthultz read up on AEP's reserve-support policies on the company website and read positive performance reviews on militaryjobs.com.

"I wanted to be associated with a company that understood and respected the expertise that military personnel bring to the table and that supports reservists in their schedules. I was very happy to join the AEP team," says Sthultz.

Sthultz is co-chair of AEP's employee resource group for veterans. The group will host an open house for veterans and reservists through AEP's transition office on June 27. The AEP executive team has formed veteran-support policies based on the group's suggestions. The "Wall of Heroes" in AEP's headquarters lists the names of veterans on staff; CEO Akins sends a certificate to each every Veterans' Day.

AEP backs these tokens of appreciation with pay-matching policies for service men and women, as well as continuing spousal benefits for the families of deployed employees. AEP participates in several nationwide veteran-hiring initiatives, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Hire Our Heroes program.

AEP is one of 150 corporate members of the 100,000 Jobs Program. Since its founding in 2011, the program has resulted in 140,832 veteran jobs across a range of industries. Together, the companies aspire to hire 200,000 vets by 2020. Coalition members AEP, JPMorgan Chase, Verizon, Kroger Co., Express Scripts, Whirlpool and Time Warner Cable are among the 25 largest private employers in the Columbus region.

Sthultz says that he recommends not only his employer AEP, but the entire Columbus region to job seekers in his military network. Living and working in the city as a veteran is "wonderful," he says. "I've posted different things on my own social media outlets and I've talked to them personally about jobs here in Columbus."

Stationed for Success

Between employer presence and public policy, officials say the city of Columbus and state of Ohio are working hard to create a veteran-friendly employment market. With just under 900,000 veteran residents, Ohio has the sixth-largest veteran population in the nation. Ohio's 2013 veteran unemployment rate averaged 6.8 percent, just above the national 6.6-percent rate.

"That's not where we want to be, but that's down from 11 percent in 2010," says retired Army Col. Tim Gorrell, director of the Ohio Department of Veterans Services. Gorrell was appointed to the position in October 2013 by Gov. John Kasich.

ODVS works in coordination with other state partners-specifically

Ohio Means Jobs, the Department of Job and Family Services, the Adjutant General's department and the Office of Workforce Transformation-to

create economic opportunities for veterans and their families. The agency advocates for jobs and benefits for Ohio's current veteran residents, and acts as a connecter for those seeking employment and employers seeking to add vets to their workforce.

"For transitioning veterans, we want to continue to highlight Ohio as an attractive place. Come on back home, because there is opportunity, as far as employment, education," says Gorrell. "If you're not from Ohio, we want you to come to Ohio anyhow and make Ohio your home."

ODVS takes part in a number of veterans-career programs, including Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor's Insuring Ohio's Futures insurance-industry hiring initiative, the Troops to Teachers initiative, GE's Get Skills to Work online job-hunting toolkit, the Troops to Energy utility hiring program and the Ohio Energy Workforce Consortium. A skills translator function on the Ohio Means Veteran Jobs website allows service members and employers to "translate" military experience and training into the skills needed for civilian positions.

Gorrell had trouble translating his own military experience into the resume requirements of HR departments upon retiring from his last Army assignment as command inspector general for the Ohio National Guard.

"I had to overcome the notion people have, sometimes, that the military are lockstep, that we're one-dimensional," says Gorrell. Military officers and enlisted personnel do much more than bark and carry out orders, says Gorrell. Regardless of rank, service men and women are expected to take responsibility and make critical decisions.

While military experience may not follow a traditional career track, Gorrell has seen time and again how well military skills translate into veterans' success in civilian IT, logistics, engineering, human resources, skilled trade and healthcare positions.

"For any one of those areas, I can make a case for hiring a veteran," he says.

JPMorgan Chase is one of the companies that has capitalized on veterans' leadership skills. Chase recruits former military personnel through the company's Body Armor to Business Suits transition and leadership training programs. Chase has hired 839 veterans in Ohio and 6,700 veterans company-wide since 2001.

"If we provide them the training, they have the leadership and the calmness and the foresight to understand our mission and understand how we operate our business," says Jeremy Young, market manager for Chase's consumer banking in mid-Ohio.

Chase CEO Jamie Dimon has "put the right people" around the company's veteran initiatives, says Young. In addition to Chase's veteran employee resource group, the company's hiring managers take part in a training program called Military 101 in which they learn about different military branches and ranks. Young says Chase cultivates a culture in which managers gain an appreciation for the experiences veterans share, "how they work together as a team and what they look to accomplish from a military background."

Columbus can be proud of the employment opportunities and job support the city's private-sector provides military service members, says Army veteran and City Councilmember Hearcel Craig. In April, Craig traveled to Washington D.C. to serve on the National Selection Board for the 2014 Secretary of Defense Employer Support Freedom Award. The award is the Department of Defense's highest honor for civilian employers. They are nominated by employees who are members of the guard and reserve.

Craig helped select this year's 30 national Freedom Award finalists from the pool of 2,864 employers nominated. In 2013, the city of Columbus joined the ranks of 190 employers who have won the award since its inception in 1996 (among them, Columbus-based NetJets and the Ohio Department of Public Safety).

"In terms of what we're doing here locally, we certainly stack up well," says Craig, who gained insight into veteran employment efforts nationwide as a member of the award-selection committee. "Our contribution, our openness, our employment opportunities for our veterans, our service men and women, certainly are great."

Fifteen 2014 Freedom Award winners will be announced this summer and honored at a ceremony at the Pentagon in September. Dublin-based Cardinal Health, a finalist, hopes to be among the recipients.

"As a Fortune (500) company, we want to make sure we're leading that effort … to help (veterans) make as smooth a transition, not only back to our country, but then back into the workforce," says Brian Moore, vice president of global talent acquisition and talent management for Cardinal.

Cardinal has nearly tripled its veteran hiring in the past three years, says Moore. Moore's department has a full-time liaison who helps veterans translate their military experience into business terminology on Cardinal applications. The company uses its veterans-only career website to begin recruiting service men and women while they're still on active duty. Cardinal recruiters visit military colleges and bases throughout the nation to reach potential veteran hires, and the company's veteran employee resource group has several hundred members.

Cardinals efforts were validated through the 2014 Freedom Award nomination, Moore says. "They recognize that we've made a lot of momentum and had some successes over the past two years." He adds that the award is the highest honor his company could receive.

Bootstrapping vets

Not all of the roughly 250,000 vets who transition out of military service every year begin their civilian careers by sending out resumes. Veterans are 45-percent more likely to be self-employed than people with no military background, says Martin Golden, Columbus district director of the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Veterans possess many of the "characteristics that would lend themselves to being small business owners," says Golden. Golden served as a lieutenant commander and intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy and Naval Reserve before going on to study business, join the financial services sector and found his own healthcare finance company.

Veteran-owned businesses range across all industries, says Golden. There are an estimated 2.45 million veteran-owned small businesses nationwide; though they comprise 6 percent of the population, veterans made up 9.1 percent of U.S. business owners in 2012, according to the SBA. Veterans are also more likely than non-veterans to own two or more businesses.

Veteran-owned firms reported $1.22 trillion in sales, 5.793 million employees and annual payroll of $210 billion in the U.S. Census Bureau's 2007 Survey of Business Owners. There are 88,569 veteran-owned businesses in the state of Ohio, 9,737 of which are located in Franklin County according to ODVS Director Gorrell.

"Columbus is one of the top cities in the nation for veteran-owned businesses," says Gorrell. Columbus ranks 15th in the nation with 5,632 veteran-owned businesses.

In 2011, the city began certifying veteran-owned businesses through the Equal Business Opportunity Commission, allowing them to better compete for city contracts-one of many factors that make Columbus attractive to veteran business owners.

The Veterans Administration and the SBA help veterans access programs designed to assist veterans with financing and business startup. Rich Johnson, a former Air Force accountant and founder/CEO of ViaQuest, accessed a small amount of financial assistance available to him through veteran programs when he founded his Columbus-based healthcare and employment-services company in 1999. Johnson would like to see even more financial programs available to help veterans open businesses.

"When you've been a veteran of the armed services, your overall financial wherewithal is not significant enough, typically, to get bank financing," says Johnson. "You have to go to family and friends, which is what I had to do."

There are over 100 veterans on ViaQuest's staff of 1,400. The company has intensified the veteran focus in its employment division in recent years. ViaQuest currently works with 18 companies, including OfficeMax, to strengthen veteran-focused training programs.

Another pair of veteran business owners, Army Special Forces veterans Chad Monnin and Greg Miller, met during training exercises at Rickenbacker. They founded Mission Essential in 2004. The New Albany-based linguistics and intelligence contractor boasts a staff that is 30-percent veteran employees. The nature of the firm's work isn't the only quality that attracts veterans and reservists to the company, says Chairman and CEO Peter Horvath.

"We're always looking for the opportunity to employ veterans, just because there is that connection to how the company started," says Horvath. "Making veterans a part of this is a good thing."

Nonetheless, small and midsized firms disproportionately feel the pinch of reservist deployments in comparison to large corporations, says C3 Strategy Group and Military Experts consultant Dennis McCarthy.

"The fact that USERRA puts the same burden on all employers is probably something that should be adjusted," says McCarthy.

When his son, attorney and Marine Corps reservist Michael McCarthy, was preparing to launch the firm he was called to active duty. The firm's third partner, attorney and Army reservist Sean McCarthy, was activated shortly upon his brother's return.

"Military deployments, for small business, can really overrun a business," says Michael McCarthy. He had to shut down his separate law practice and scale back operations at Military Experts while he was gone. But, he says, everybody feels the heat when a service man or woman is called away from home and business to combat.

"Unfortunately, some of these things are never ideal timing for military employee or employer," says Michael McCarthy. "That's the challenge."

The country is at a crossroads now, says Dennis McCarthy. High domestic unemployment is dovetailing with a troop drawdown in the Middle East. But, he adds, the new veterans released to the civilian workforce present a "tremendous opportunity for business."