Veteran Benefits

1215veteranstory

Several New North companies are diving headlong into the pool of talent represented by returning military heroes

Story by Rick Berg

In 1935, when Al Schneider started the company that has since become Ashwaubenon-based Schneider National, he needed reliable, skilled and hard-working people to staff his new business. A long-time National Guardsmen himself, Schneider couldn’t think of a better source of talent than the men he had served with in the Guard. Company history recalls that he “understood the exceptionally high level of commitment and skill military members bring to their work.”

To put Schneider’s longtime commitment to veterans in perspective, there’s a national award named in Al Schneider’s honor. The Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States has presented the “Al Schneider Memorial Award” each year since 1991 to “an employer that has demonstrated outstanding support to the enlisted men and women of the Guard and Reserves.”

When Al’s son, Don, joined the business fulltime in 1961 after his own military tour of duty in Korea was completed, he brought that same level of regard for military veterans as a source of employee talent. Today, about a quarter of the company’s more than 17,000 employees are veterans.

So, it’s little surprise that when Rob Reich completed his military service in 1992, he quickly found a home at Schneider as a maintenance supervisor. Today, Reich is a senior vice president at Schneider, responsible for – among other things – driver recruiting.

Schneider doesn’t just look passively on veterans as a source of employee talent. “We actually do very active and targeted recruiting of military veterans,” said Reich, “and we have programs designed to make it very attractive for veterans to join us.”

For example, he noted, a veteran joining Schneider in a job where he or she had similar experience in the military gets credit for that time in service and is slotted in at an appropriate pay grade.

Veterans joining Schneider and needing to learn a new skill can take advantage of Schneider’s VA-certified apprenticeship program, which pays them $1,200 a month in GI Bill education benefits, in addition to their Schneider salary.

For Guard and Reserve employees called up to active duty, Schneider keeps them enrolled in the company’s benefits program and also “grosses up” their pay, according to Reich. That means Schneider pays them the difference between their Schneider pay and their military pay so employees are not financially penalized for serving their country.

Above and beyond for some companies

If it sounds like Schneider National goes beyond what most companies do in hiring and valuing military service veterans, the company is not alone.

Besides Schneider, the list of New North organizations that have been recognized by the U.S. Department of Defense for their noteworthy support of veterans includes Faith Technologies of Menasha, Little Rapids Corp. of Green Bay, Mercury Marine in Fond du Lac, Schutt Industries in Clintonville, Oshkosh Corp., Ariens Company in Brillion, Appleton-based Boldt Co., KI in Green Bay, Oshkosh Door, Fond du Lac-based Moraine Park Technical College, J. J. Keller & Associates of Neenah, Waupaca Foundry, Voith Paper in Appleton, Miller Electric Mfg. in Appleton, Secura Insurance of Appleton, Fox Valley Surgical Associates in Appleton and Briess Malt & Ingredients in Chilton.

Briess Malt & Ingredients, for example, received three awards – the Patriot, Above and Beyond and Pro Patria Awards – in 2012 for its support of veterans.

Leona Propson, now a quality assurance coordinator at Briess and a retired Army Reservist, said Briess management offered significant support when she was deployed in Kosovo and Iraq between 2000 and 2010, including frequent emails from owner Monica Briess and president Gordon Lane. Propson said she was offered a promotion when she returned from active duty.

Mercury Marine, which earlier this year received the Department of Defense Above and Beyond and Pro Patria Awards, held its annual salute to its employee veterans this past November, with company president John Pfeiffer noting that “veterans continue to provide us leadership, and today is our chance to pay them back.”

A lack of understanding

LeRoy Frahm, an electronics technician in the physics department at Lawrence University in Appleton and Wisconsin ombudsman for the Department of Defense’s Employer Support of the Guard and Reserves (ESGR), said he’s not surprised by the companies that provide stellar, above-and-beyond support for veterans, Guardsmen and Reservists. Rather, Frahm said he’s puzzled by the number of employers who appear to be unaware of even the minimum requirements prescribed by the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, otherwise known as USERRA, which became law in 1994.

“With my experience in our awards program, I know that there are a lot of good employers out there who not only meet but exceed the USERRA requirements,” Frahm said. “But for as long as this issue has been in the public eye – over 20 years – I am still puzzled today as to why some employers are not more on top of the requirements of USERRA.”

“I think a lot of it is a result of misunderstanding,” Frahm said. “The violations tend to be a result of people not being properly trained in human resource departments. Sometimes there’s a lot of turnover in human resources and for some companies that’s one of the first things to go when costs are cut. That’s part of our mission at ESGR is to educate people to be more aware of the law and its requirements.”

ESGR also works with the Society for Human Resource Management to help educate human resources professionals on the law. SHRM has produced the document, Support From Behind the Lines: 10 Steps to Becoming a Military-Ready Employer, designed to guide employers on military-related issues.

ESGR also publishes an Employer Resource Guide, which includes a summary of USERRA requirements. It’s available at no cost to employers.

The most common violations, Frahm said, tend to be companies that don’t maintain an employee’s seniority while he or she is on active duty, requiring employees to find their own replacement before reporting for active duty, or requiring employees to use vacation time for their military service.

Frahm, who served in the Air Force on active duty and reserve for 35 years, said some employers’ lack of regard for Reservists and Guardsmen might stem from an earlier time when those service members were not typically called to active duty and were not always held in the highest regard.

“However, we’ve been using the Guard and Reserve at a very high-ops tempo for a long time now,” Frahm said. “Nearly half of our national defense currently is in the hands of our Guard and Reserve. And yet there are some people who don’t recognize that these service members are not just a bunch of draft dodgers and weekend warriors. In fact, they are highly trained, highly committed individuals.”

A good source of talent

With the talent gap facing most employers today and in the near future, both Frahm and Reich find it surprising that more employers don’t take advantage of the talent pool represented by returning veterans.

“Some employers do recognize that returning veterans make exceptional employees,” Frahm said. “They’re well trained, they’re physically fit, and they’re drug free. They bring a lot of value to employers today.”

Reich agrees.

“I just read that there is a record number of job openings in the country today, so if a company is struggling to find people with certain skills, I don’t see how any employer can afford to overlook this pool of talent,” said Reich. “I think a lot of times what it takes to get the ball rolling in a company is to have several veterans within the organization to provide a model for how to take advantage of the unique experiences that veterans can bring to a company.”

Frahm said his experience with employers on the issue of employing veterans runs the gamut.

There are those who clearly see the value veterans bring with their experience, skill, discipline and character, and who actively work to bring those individuals and their characteristics into the culture of the company.

There are those, also, who see the value and also believe that supporting veterans, Reservists and Guardsmen is simply good citizenship.

“We’ve had some employers, when we’re presenting them with an award, who say, ‘I don’t understand why I’m getting an award just for doing the right thing.’ I love hearing that,” Frahm said.

Then there are employers who see the active duty call-ups of their employees as an inconvenient interruption of their business.

“I’d like to say to them, ‘What’s your legacy? Do you want to be the company that discourages young men and women from pursuing a career in the Guard and Reserve?’ Those are important questions,” Frahm said. “The Guard and Reserve have become a critical component of our national defense.”

“I just read a quote from Thomas Payne,” Frahm said. “Payne wrote, ‘Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must undergo the fatigues of supporting it.’ I think that sums it up perfectly.”

Rick Berg is a freelance editor and writer based in Green Bay.