Home Depot builds strong corps of veterans

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

(c) 2013, The Washington Post.

WASHINGTON — Donald Sullivan strolled contentedly amid the bustle of contractors wheeling carts stacked with lumber at the Home Depot in Hyattsville, Md.

"It's fast and furious in the lumber aisle," said Sullivan, operations manager for the store. "Organized chaos. I love it."

The morning hours, when contractors pick up supplies for construction jobs, are often the busiest, and Sullivan, a former Army officer, makes a point of being on hand to direct traffic.

Sullivan saw combat with the 3rd Armored Division during the 1991 Gulf War. As a reservist, he was mobilized after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and stayed on duty for five years with a brigade that trained soldiers deploying overseas.

For Sullivan, trading Army green for Home Depot orange has not been a problem. The company, he said, holds many of the attributes that attracted him to military service — a sense of mission, camaraderie, and enough unpredictability to keep the job interesting — minus hostile fire.

"Someone with a military background feels comfortable in this environment, because a lot is happening," he said.

More than 10 percent of Home Depot's 300,000 employees have a military background. The company estimates that it employs more than 35,000 veterans or members of the military serving in the National Guard or reserves. About 1,500 employees are deployed on active duty at any given time, according to the company.

Frank Blake, chief executive of Home Depot, said the company has found that veterans are often well suited to work for a company where employees are encouraged to think of their job as a mission.

"You are leading a group of people," Blake said in an interview. "You have to link everyone in a common set of goals. Folks who've had military experience understand that. The skill sets are terrific."

Many companies often tout themselves as being veteran-friendly, particularly around Veterans Day, when they blanket the media with details about their efforts to provide veterans with everything from jobs to free cups of coffee.

But veteran advocates say Home Depot deserves credit for its range of initiatives, from hiring veterans to its philanthropic efforts in battling veterans homelessness to its employees' volunteer efforts.

"Home Depot sets a standard, because they take a holistic approach," said Jim Knotts, president and chief executive of Operation Homefront, a group that aids military families.

One year ago, Home Depot launched an initiative called "Mission: Transition" to help service members get jobs in the civilian workforce, offering coaching on issues such as resume-writing and interview preparation. The company also established a Web-based skills translator to match a service members' military experience with civilian jobs.

With unemployment still high for veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, hiring initiatives by large companies are critical, advocates say.

"There's only so much capacity in small and mid-sized firms," said Derek Bennett, chief of staff for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "You need to have companies with a national reach like Home Depot participating."

As a whole, veterans do well in the U.S. job force. The unemployment rate for all U.S. veterans was 6.9 percent in September, lower than the 7.2 percent for the population as a whole.

But unemployment for the post-9/11 generation of veterans stood at 10 percent in October, up from 7.7 percent in July. The numbers tend to fluctuate each month, and the long-term trend is slightly down, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs

Home Depot hired more than 10,000 veterans last year. As part of the Joining Forces campaign led by first lady Michelle Obama, the company committed to increase veteran hiring by 10 percent each year over the next five years, which would mean about 55,000 over that time period.

Other major companies have also pledged to hire large numbers of veterans, including Wal-Mart, which committed to employing 100,000 veterans by the end of 2018, and McDonald's, which pledged to hire 100,000 in the next three years. AT&T announced Wednesday that it is doubling its hiring goal for veterans to 10,000 for the next five years

The Obama administration has set up tax credits that encourage companies to hire veterans.

But noted Blake, "We don't hire for tax credits, we hire for the long term."

Other initiatives include the Home Depot Foundation, a separate charitable entity that receives much of its funding from the company and has committed $80 million to support veterans' housing initiatives.

Kelly Caffarelli, president of the foundation, said the organization tries to fill "the gaps where current funding isn't meeting the need. The government can't do it all."

Team Depot, a volunteer program made up of Home Depot employees, completed 550 building projects for veterans in 2012, including refurbishing homes and building ramps for the disabled.

The company has played a key role in providing logistical support and supplies for Team Rubicon, a veteran organization that responds to disasters such as Hurricane Sandy, according to William McNulty, co-founder of the nonprofit group.

"Home Depot doesn't just want to write a check," McNulty said. "They want to get involved in the operation."

Blake did not serve in the military, but his son, Frank Blake Jr. , served as a signal officer with the Army's 4th Infantry Division in the volatile area around Tikrit after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. His son's experience helped shape the elder Blake's view of how the company could support veterans.

"There are a lot of things I probably wouldn't have understood, but for being around my son and his colleagues," Blake said.

The younger Blake enrolled in a Home Depot junior officer management program after leaving the Army and is now a district manager for the company in Georgia.

bc-homedepot-vets (TPN)