Michelle Obama photo

Remarks by the First Lady at the Business Roundtable Quarterly Meeting

March 13, 2013

MRS. OBAMA: Good morning. (Applause.) Thank you so much.

I want to start by thanking Mike for that very kind introduction and for everything that he and Walmart are doing to support our troops, our veterans and the health of our families. I also want to thank Jim McNerney as well as Governor John Engler for their extraordinary leadership of the Business Roundtable and for inviting me here this morning to be with all of you.

I'd also like to thank the military leaders who are here with us -- Lieutenant General Bill Troy from the Army, and Vice Admiral Bill French from the Navy. I'd like to recognize the representatives from the administration who have joined us -- you guys wave if you're here -- Fred Vollrath and Frank DiGiovanni from the Department of Defense; John Gingrich from the Department of Veterans Affairs; Keith Kelly from the Department of Labor; and Matthew McGuire from the Department of Commerce.

And finally, I want to thank all of you, the leaders of our nation's businesses; leaders who care deeply about the future of your businesses and about the future of our country and those who serve it.

As you know, over the past couple of years, Jill Biden and I have been working to support our nation's veterans and military families through Joining Forces. And now that the Iraq War is over and the war in Afghanistan is drawing to a close, we are focused like never before on helping our veterans and military spouses find employment and build their careers.

Right now, there are hundreds of thousands of veterans and military spouses looking for work. And in the coming years, we know that over one million more will be hanging up their uniforms and transitioning back to civilian life. These men and women will be returning to their families, rejoining their communities, and figuring out what's next in their lives. And as they do all of that, the one thing that they're going to be thinking about is a job.

They will be trying to figure out how to achieve that sense of financial security and stability for their family, how to find that next mission to accomplish. And that's where all of you come in.

So today, I want to spend a little time just talking to you about who these veterans and military spouses are, what they can do for your businesses, and how they can keep on serving this country in the years ahead. So let's start with who they are.

This current group of veterans –- the 9/11 Generation, as my husband has called them –- holds a special place in our history. These are the Americans who stepped up and volunteered to serve during wartime knowing full well they would be sent into harm's way. They are young -- the majority are between 18 and 34 years old –- and a record number of them are women.

They're highly skilled, serving as IT specialists and operations managers, logistics coordinators. They've overseen millions of dollars' worth of assets, operated complicated machinery, managed dozens –- even hundreds –- of their peers. On the battlefield, they are the leaders of today's dynamic modern warfare. One day they're handing out humanitarian aid, and the next they're responding to a firefight, and the next they're building relationships with local leaders. And they're doing all of this on the razor's edge, when one wrong move could mean the difference between life or death.

And then back at home, their spouses are serving this country as well. They're volunteering in their communities like no one else. They're taking care of their kids, taking them to soccer; managing their family's finances alone. Many are even hitting the books for night class after everyone else is asleep.

Every couple of years, these spouses are uprooting their lives and restarting their careers as their families are transferred from base to base. They're dealing with all the emotions of long, multiple deployments, constantly worried about the danger that lies ahead for their loved one. And when their spouse comes home, some carrying the seen or unseen wounds of war, they are snapping back to action to care for them.

So these men and women, our veterans and military spouses, have seen it all. And in the process, they have gained the types of qualities and values that you simply can't teach anywhere else –- a relentless commitment to excellence, the ability to juggle multiple priorities, the wherewithal to meet deadlines under every circumstance imaginable.

They know how to develop and execute complex strategic plans, and they don't give up until their mission is complete. And when the pressure is highest, that's when our veterans and military spouses are at their best.

And believe me, my husband and I have seen this firsthand. We have had the privilege and opportunity to work with military personnel at all levels of the White House, from our policy teams to our military aides to our Navy mess staff. We have spent countless hours with thousands of our troops and military families at White House events and on military bases throughout the world.

And let me tell you, they are some of the most nimble and creative and effective people you will ever meet. And I couldn't recommend them more highly.

These men and women are exactly the kinds of employees you all are looking for to help you compete in today's global marketplace, and they're proving that every single day with their achievements in the private sector. Let me just share a few stories.

Jenna Dolan was in the Marines for 12 years, including two deployments to Iraq as a fighter pilot. And today, she's a program manager at GE where she's working with outside clients and people from all across the company to help build and sell helicopter engines. And when she's not doing that, she's still serving our country in the Reserves.

There's Holly Liskey, whose husband has been deployed five times as a Marine in the last 10 years. While her husband is overseas, Holly serves as a single parent for all five of their children. And Sam's Club thought that if she could handle that then she could handle just about anything, so they hired her as an assistant manager.

And then there's Neil Duncan, a former Army paratrooper with the 173rd airborne. Neil lost both his legs to an IED in Afghanistan, and since his injury, he's climbed some of the tallest mountains on Earth –- on prosthetics. And last summer, at the end of his internship with JPMorgan Chase, Neil's manager knew they couldn't let him get away so they hired him for a full-time position as an associate at a bank in Denver where today, he works with clients on their investment portfolios.

And that's just three of thousands of examples I could give -– a paratrooper in finance, a military wife supervising dozens of employees, and a fighter pilot who's now a program manager. These folks are dynamic, resilient, and incredibly loyal. They are dedicated and hard-working, and they have what it takes to rise all the way to the top of your companies. And many of you already know this from personal experience.

Right here in this room, we have multiple CEOs who have served in our Armed Forces. And I want to take a moment to say thank you for your tremendous service to our country. Thank you so much.

But you don't have to be a veteran to realize that hiring our troops is the right thing to do for your business, which is why in the last two years, American businesses -- including many represented here today -- have taken up my husband's challenge to the private sector. And in the last two years, you've hired or trained more than 125,000 veterans and military spouses, and you've committed to hire or train 250,000 more by the end of 2014.

So together, we are making real progress. And let me just say, I could not be more grateful for those of you who have stepped up and already made commitments. But I also have to be frank with you as we look ahead at the big picture.

While we certainly are encouraged that we continue to chip away at the unemployment rate, right now, 9.4 percent of post-9/11 veterans –- about 200,000 people -– are still unemployed. That's almost two points higher than the national rate. And for women veterans, the rate is even higher. And many young veterans –- those ages 18 to 24 –- more than one out of three are unemployed. Now, on top of that, we've got another 200,000 active duty military spouses currently looking for work.

And when you combine all those numbers with the one million veterans that we know will be transitioning home over the next few years, it couldn't be more clear that we still have a lot more work to do. And that's why I want to highlight the incredible commitment from Walmart.

Now, as Mike said, Walmart is projecting that they will hire 100,000 veterans in the next five years, which is truly extraordinary. But they are not limiting themselves to that number. They're making an open-ended commitment to our veterans.

For every veteran who has served honorably and is in need of a job in the year after they separate from the military, Walmart is telling them that they will hire them. And they aren't just looking at annual turnover rates and picking a minimum number they know they can easily hit. Instead, they are setting the bar high. They're saying, no matter what, we've got your back.

Just think about the power of that level of commitment to those veterans. It's a commitment that carries real weight –- and real risk, I might add. But Walmart is ready for the challenge. They're not just asking themselves, what can we afford to do? No, they're asking, what more can we do?

Now, some of you might be saying, sure, Walmart's in retail. They've got stores in every corner of the country. They're hiring for all kinds of different jobs, from customer service to truck drivers to HR. But while the characteristics of your companies may vary, the character of your commitment to veterans doesn't have to.

Whether you're in finance or technology or the food industry, every single one of you can ask yourselves that same question: What more can we do? So today, I want to challenge all the members of the Business Roundtable to answer that question for your businesses.

Think outside the box. Take real risks. And work together to make big, bold commitments to hire our veterans and military spouses and help them reach their full potential within your companies. Show them that your business is there for them for the long haul.

And if you do that, I know that you can build on the 125,000 folks that we've already hired or trained and you can help us bring our veterans unemployment rate down to zero -- yes, zero. That should be our goal -- in fact, that is our goal. But it's going to take every one of us doing our part to reach it.

And I want to emphasize that your companies are uniquely poised to make a real, meaningful difference on this issue. Together, you employ nearly 16 million people. You represent $7.3 trillion in revenue every single year –- almost half of our nation's GDP. So the folks in this room alone have the capacity to end veterans' unemployment in this country.

Now, of course, I'm not going to try to sell you on exactly who you should hire or how you should train them. And I do understand that what works for Walmart may not necessarily work for UPS or Motorola. I mean, you all are the only ones who can figure out the best approach for your businesses.

But I do want to encourage you to sit down with each other and figure this out together by sharing best practices, pooling resources where it makes sense, and doing everything you can to fully integrate veterans into your businesses. And as you all are working hard on this issue -- which I know you will -- please know that this administration will be with you every step of the way.

All the people from across the government that I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks are also working hard on this issue within their agencies, and they will be available to answer your questions right after this meeting and in the weeks and months ahead.

Just last week, we sat down with vice presidents and HR professionals from many of your companies to hear about how we can better help you find the people with the skills and talents that you're seeking. And that comes on top of the work that we've already done over the past few years, including the tax credits my husband has made available to any business hiring an unemployed veteran or wounded warrior.

We're also helping our troops translate their skills into civilian resumes, and matching them with careers that suit their experiences. We've created an online jobs bank, and we're connecting your companies to veterans in local communities through our American Job Centers. And we're also streamlining the credentialing processes so it's easier for military truck drivers, welders, machinists and medics to earn the certifications they need in the civilian world.

So believe me, we are in this together with you. And I also want you to know that folks across this country are in this with you, too. That's what I've found to be the beauty of this issue. Whether folks are in the private or public sectors, whether they're from big cities or rural areas, everyone is on board when it comes to supporting our military families.

Just look around this room. We've got competitors like UPS and FedEx, Verizon and AT&T, Viacom and DirecTV all sitting at the same tables ready to take on this issue together. No matter your differences, you're here today because you know that hiring veterans is good for your company and good for our country.

And if you do this, if you direct the full power of your businesses to support our veterans, you will be making progress that lifts up this entire nation. You'll be making your businesses more productive, you'll be helping to lower the unemployment rate, and you'll be strengthening our economy. And more than anything else, you'll be showing these veterans what it means to be a member of America's military family.

We have the capacity to redefine what it means to be a grateful nation -– that we honor and respect those who serve our country, not just while they're in uniform, but also when they come home and for the rest of their lives. And let's be honest, in previous decades, our country hasn't always met that responsibility.

But right now, today, we have an opportunity to show this generation of veterans that they're coming back to a nation that truly appreciates their service, not simply with words, but with real, concrete action -- action that will profoundly impact the direction their lives take long after they leave the military.

We know that finding a job isn't just about a paycheck. It's a pathway to security and stability for these families -- allowing them to save for a home, to send their kids to college, to build the life they've always dreamed of.

But more importantly, a job is a source of pride. So many of these veterans are just looking for their next mission. They are ready. Because for them, the end of their military service doesn't mean the end of their service to this country. These men and women desperately want to put their training to good use by continuing their service here at home.

They want to play a pivotal role in investing in our communities and rebuilding on this recovery. They want to deploy their skills and energies to ensure that we remain the greatest nation on Earth. And we owe it to them to give them that opportunity.

And we only get one chance at this, and we don't have a moment to waste. These first few months after our troops transition out of service are pivotal, so we've got to act fast. Now is the time when they're making decisions that will affect the rest of their lives. Now is the time when they're beginning to feel whether or not this country is truly there for them. So now is the time when we've got to spring into action.

We've got to hold ourselves to the same standards of service and patriotism as they've held themselves. And we've got to join forces so that we can truly serve our veterans and military families as well as they have served us.

So I want to thank you. I want to thank you all again -- your businesses, the individuals within your companies for everything that you do on this issue. And thank you for all that you do for this country every single day. I truly look forward to working with all of you in the months and years ahead.

Thank you so much.

Michelle Obama, Remarks by the First Lady at the Business Roundtable Quarterly Meeting Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/320162

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