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May 14, 2014

Hiring Vets is Part of Klein's Mission

Hiring military veterans is a popular cause these days, as downsizing by the Department of Defense will send nearly a million service men and women back to civilian life over the next five years. Yet too many companies recognize vets' service with patriotic lip service, and little else. One notable exception is Klein Steel Service in Rochester, N.Y., which claims that hiring vets "is in our DNA."

Klein is proud that veterans make up more than 20 percent of a workforce that numbers nearly 200. Among them are the following key managers: Todd Zyra, president and COO, a former Marine; Al Mangiamele, vice president of strategic initiatives, Pat DiLaura, chief talent officer, and Joe Rodibaugh, corporate logistics manager, all Army vets; and Mike Keliher, production operations manager, retired from the Navy. No doubt former Klein President John Batiste, a retired major general, had much to do with the company’s veteran-friendly recruiting policies. Batiste resigned last December to head up Buffalo Armory, a Klein spinoff that now sells armor plate and high-strength steel for defense and other applications.

"Our focus on veterans was put in place to a large extent when John Batiste became president eight years ago, but it has evolved and taken on a life of its own since then. Our emphasis on veterans' causes goes beyond any one person at this point. It's a part of our culture, who we are and what we believe," says DiLaura.

Veterans represent a talent pool with a solid foundation, he notes. "Companies often struggle to find people with predictable skills. One of the things the military does well is training, particularly its leaders. To us, it tends to make for a lower-risk hire."

Klein especially looks for junior military officers--second lieutenants, first lieutenants and captains--who tend to adapt well to operations management positions. Non-officer specialists with technical backgrounds are often a good fit for shop floor positions such as machine operators. "From a philosophical standpoint, we believe it’s easier to teach the job than the cultural fit," DiLaura says.

As part of its mission, Klein seeks to give back to the communities where it lives and does business. Thus it seeks individuals who are equally service-minded, be they military vets or Peace Corp. volunteers. Volunteer service is not the primary qualification, however. "We look to bring in the best and the brightest. That is always factor No. 1. We don't hire a person just because he or she served in the military."

Some company HR departments are reluctant to hire individuals who have served overseas for fear they may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. They often fail to see how military experience has any relevance to a regular job, like one in a metals service center. Klein's Keliher works as a volunteer with the Warrior Salute program, helping vets translate the military experience on their resumes to job skills that will resonate with civilian employers.

"You may know that a senior commissioned officer has broad leadership skills, but where might he or she fit into your organization? It takes effort and insight to break work history into bite-sized morsels that are recognizable," Keliher explains. "A gunner, for example, has experience in stressful, war-zone environments where an emphasis on safety, attention to detail, heightened alert and constant awareness of surroundings is required. In other words, this person is a good candidate for a position in a steel service center where safety is imperative. A signal operator? Possibly a good fit in telecom or IT. An infantryman? Likely to understand logistics."

Other service centers say they would gladly hire military veterans and help them find their place in civilian life, but they don't know where to start. Klein team members actively recruit military personnel at local career fairs sponsored by the Veterans Administration or Rochester’s Veterans Outreach Center. They volunteer at organizations such as the Rochester Regional Veterans Business Council and Warrior Salute. Most counties have a Veterans Assistance Commission charged with helping veterans access their hard-earned benefits, from health care to employment assistance. The Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, Wounded Warrior Project and Operation Support Our Troops America are among the many other national and regional service organizations that offer assistance to vets and potential employers.

Veterans themselves contribute to their employment issues because they often look down on jobs in industrial environments such as steel distribution. To help familiarize them with the many good career opportunities in the service center industry, Klein Steel hosts meetings of various groups and accepts interns through programs like Warrior Salute. "They get a chance to see what a steel service center looks like when it's properly run. It helps dispel a lot of the misconceptions they may have [about working in manufacturing]," DiLaura says.

Klein's approach is a model that others might emulate, but it starts with a commitment at the top. "As with anything else, it all starts in the corner office. If senior leadership makes it a priority, they can make it happen."

As Keliher adds: "It's humbling to learn the sacrifices many have made for our freedom--sacrifices that can, and should, be rewarded with gainful employment."

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