Dave Montgomery Austin Correspondent
AUSTIN – Andre Smith is an Iraq war veteran who compiled more than 20 years of service in the Army. Since January, he has relied heavily on that experience as Veterans Advocate for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, charged with the task of finding, hiring and retaining ex-military personnel for jobs in the state’s massive social services network.
The 43-year-old former Army sergeant exemplifies a growing – though sometimes spotty – effort to swell the ranks of state government with men and women who have already served their country as members of the armed forces. Some agencies have job descriptions that offer a seamless fit for those transitioning from the military, such as law enforcement personnel in the Department of Public Safety or guards and supervisors in the state prison system; those agencies boast a robust percentage of veterans in their workforce. But others have been slow to reach out to returning veterans, says State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Veteran Affairs and Military Installations.
Van de Putte, a Democrat who represents thousands of military constituents in San Antonio and is a candidate for lieutenant governor, presided over a hearing in April to examine state hiring practices regarding former military personnel. She says state agencies and public universities need to do a better overall job in putting and keeping veterans on their payrolls. “Many employers want to hire veterans. We hear that constantly,” she said in a recent telephone interview. “We don’t always hear that from our own state agencies.” The generally accepted benchmark for measuring veteran manpower in the state workforce focuses on ex-service personnel who qualify for Veterans Employment Preference, those who completed 90 days of active service and have been honorably discharged. Of the 382,900 employees at state agencies and universities in 2013, just over 19,000, or about 5 percent, were considered eligible for veterans preference, which is designed to give them preferential consideration in gaining and keeping jobs, according to the Texas Comptroller’s Office.
Other workers who identify themselves as veterans also are on the state payroll but may not qualify for or request the preference, said Macy Douglas, manager of statewide human resources and payroll assistance for the comptroller’s office. Van de Putte said veteran recruitment efforts in state government aren’t keeping pace with more aggressive and more heavily publicized campaigns in the private sector to give a hand to returning veterans. Texas has about 1.7 million veterans, the second largest number in the country behind California, with about 1.8 million. “Many, many companies have stepped up their efforts to hire veterans,” said Van de Putte. “And it’s not just because it’s the right thing to do. Veterans make excellent employees. Number one, they know how to show up and they’ve got great skills.” Dr. Kyle Janek, Texas Health and Human Services executive commissioner, acknowledged to Van de Putte’s committee that the network of social services agencies under the HHS umbrella, while doing a “decent job” in hiring veterans, needs to do better. Janek said Gov. Rick Perry summoned him to a meeting about six months ago that also included corporate CEOs to discuss “some of the obstacles to hiring veterans in Texas.” The hiring of Andre Smith as the HHS veterans liaison was the outgrowth of what Janek said was an extensive review within the agency on how to bolster veteran recruitment within the social services network. The disabled veteran said his goal is “to develop and strengthen a military-friendly culture and strategy” for veterans at the HHS, adding, “we are well on the way.” Smith said he scours veterans job fairs, maintains links with Texas military installations and works with other state agencies to maintain a constant vigil for potential employees. He also works with managers and job applicants to weed out jargon on job postings and job applications that might keep a veteran from getting a foot in the door for an interview. One agency within the HHS System, the Department of Family and Protective Services, says that former military personnel, with their physical and mental toughness, are well suited for jobs as caseworkers who are often charged with defusing potentially violent domestic situations. “That can be a very stressful job,” said spokesman Patrick Crimmins. Of the agency’s 11,789 employees, 631, or 5.4 percent, are veterans, and Crimmins said the agency has aggressively tried to boost the number by participating in veterans job fairs. The agency also got more than 700 hits on an ad in the Military Times, Crimmins said. One of the agencies with the largest share of veteran employees – nearly 15 percent – is the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which runs the state’s prisons. TDCJ recruiters have attended more than 50 military job fairs during the 2014 fiscal year, looking for applicants to fill jobs as prison guards and others posts, said spokesman Jason Clark. “I don’t think there’s a single division within the TDCJ that doesn’t have a veteran,” said Clark. Other agencies have also maintained aggressive efforts to bolster their workforces with former military personnel. The Department of Public Safety says veterans constitute about 15 percent of its total workforce and the rate climbs to more than 33 percent for on-the-ground law enforcement personnel, who include state troopers and Texas Rangers, says DPS Executive Director Steve McCraw. “We attract warriors in those positions,” said McCraw, adding that the department’s goal for veterans is to hire “as many as we can.”