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Q&A: Actor Gary Sinise Talks Veterans, Jobs and U.S. Manufacturing

By Brock N. Meeks, Ideas Lab October 15, 2013

You have a great resource in the veteran community—a million veterans over the next four or five years that are going to leave the military and move into the civilian workforce—and they're going to need jobs

Last week I sat down with long-time veteran advocate and actor Gary Sinise to talk about his involvement with the Get Skills To Work program, an effort aimed specifically at providing veterans with training needed to turn their military skills into those needed by the U.S. manufacturing industry.

Sinise talks about the hundreds of thousands of U.S. manufacturing jobs currently available for which employers are having a hard time finding qualified applicants, and how the Get Skills to Work program is helping fill that critical need.

Ideas Lab: What are you doing on this trip to Washington?

Gary Sinise:  Right now I’m here on behalf of the Get Skills To Work coalition and my partnership with them through the Gary Sinise Foundation. They’ve built this great coalition of academic institutions, trade schools and colleges.

Get Skills To Work is a program designed to provide an opportunity for somebody who has been in the military and who has obviously developed and learned great skills there, to find out how to apply those skills to a job in the civilian sector.

Within the manufacturing sector we have hundreds of thousands available jobs, yet a big percentage of those—more than 80 percent—can’t be filled because there aren’t enough qualified workers.

So you have this great resource within the veteran community—we have a million veterans over the next four or five years that are going to leave the military and move into the civilian workforce—and they’re going to need jobs. Get Skills To Work will help them take the qualifications and skills they’ve learned in the military and reinvent those skills in a way they can give back to the U.S. economy by working in manufacturing jobs.

Gary Sinise speaks at opening of Get Skills To Work

Gary Sinise moderates a panel during last year’s launch of the Get Skills To Work program.

Ideas lab: How is the program progressing?

Gary Sinise: There is a great coalition of partners they’ve built up. We launched in October of last year. I had the privilege to attend the ceremonies of the first graduating class, so I saw all those veterans who had been through the work training program at Cincinnati State College get their certificate; I think half of them have jobs now, right there in the Cincinnati area. This is one of the great things about the program: As it expands all over the country, and trade schools and colleges provide this program, the local work force is served because there are manufacturers in all these communities all around the country that need qualified workers. So it’s great to see people go through the program and stay right there in their own communities.

I’ve been involved with the military community now for a long time now, doing a lot of different things, and I’ve seen a lot of great people serving our country out there and want to make sure that when they retire from the military they continue to use what they’ve got to give back to the U.S. economy. And they want to do that, they just don’t know where to go. So we want to get the word out to them about Get Skills To Work.

Ideas Lab: A lot of people tend to believe that your interest in veterans came from your great role as Lt. Dan in Forrest Gump, but your interest actually pre-dates that role by quite a bit, correct?

Gary Sinise: Yes. Each decade, the ‘80s, ‘90s and now into the 21st century, my involvement has grown. I was 20 in the ‘80s; I had a theater company, Steppenwolf Theater Company, which I started with my friends in Chicago. And I got involved with some local veterans groups through some theatrical material that I was working on.

I have veterans on both sides of my family. My wife’s two brothers are Vietnam veterans and when I was in my early 20s I got to know them and really started to focus on our Vietnam veterans and what it was like for them when they came home from war.

I got to know them pretty well back then when I was a young guy and my focus on Vietnam veterans became pretty committed because I felt very guilty about my ignorance as a young person to what guys my age were going through in Vietnam. I wasn’t really focused on it. I was too young for Vietnam, I registered for the draft in 1973, but that was the end of the active service, the war really came to an end in ’75.

In the ‘90s I played a disabled veteran [as Lt. Dan in Forrest Gump], injured in battle, lost two legs and that led me to an association with DAV, the Disabled America Veterans group. They contacted me about three weeks after Forrest Gump opened, and asked if I would come to their national convention in Chicago. When I had the opportunity to play Lt. Dan in the ‘90s, I very much wanted to do it just to honor the Vietnam veterans I knew.

Then after September 11th when we were attacked, and we started deploying to Afghanistan and Iraq and our guys started getting killed and wounded, I just volunteered and said “You know what, this is a role for me to play. I need to make sure that what happened to our Vietnam veterans when they came home from war and the country turned its back on them, didn’t take care of them, that that doesn’t happen to our returning veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq.”

 

Get Skills To Work flow chart

Flow chart describing how veterans can move their skills to civilian jobs.

Ideas Lab: What are the qualities of the solider that would appeal to employers?

Gary Sinise: There are all kinds of jobs in the military, all kinds of skills that they learn. But bottom line is that they learn organization, they learn to accomplish the mission, to set the mission up. They learn teamwork, discipline.

Just think about what we did in the early part of the 20th century, the things that were going up here and there. It was this huge, industrious labor force building this country, just incredible. And we’re not necessarily training people to do that kind of work today, but the military does.

During a recent tour of an Air Force base, they took me to one of the metal shops where these guys are the ones that make sure there are no cracks in the airplanes. And I said to one of the metal shop workers, “Did you want to do this job when you came into the Air Force?”  He said “No! I didn’t really know what I was going to do, I just knew I wanted to join the Air Force. I wasn’t really going to be a pilot, but I wanted to be in the Air Force.”

And now he builds all this incredible stuff; he’s got this incredible skill. And I know that somebody like that is going to be very, very valuable to certain companies. So you send him to the Get Skills To Work program, retool those skills a little bit and he’s a valuable asset to any manufacturer and I think we have a lot of people like that that who are going to be leaving the military and are going to be very valuable to a lot of companies.

We just need to get the word out to the manufacturers that this program exists and to the veterans so they know it exists.

Ideas Lab: Filling hundreds of thousands of available jobs is a big task.  Are there any goals for the Get Skills To Work program to fill them?

Gary Sinise: 100,000 veterans reached by 2015—that’s the objective. We’re coming up on 2014. We’ve reached more than 30,000 veterans through the Get Skills To Work programming. More than 5,000 veterans have been trained through the program and the Coalition has hired more than 4,500 veterans this year.

We know the jobs are there; it’s just getting the word to the manufacturers, companies, to the businesses small and large that there is this available resource here that you should tap into.

Ideas Lab: Manufacturers may be thinking, “Should I take a chance on these guys that have been in war all this time?”

Gary Sinise: That’s what great about Get Skills To Work, is that the program does all that vetting of the individual. When you go through the program you’re going to college, learning a trade. You learn how to apply for a job, not just do the job, but also how to apply for the job, how to present yourself, how to go in and get that job.

So it trains you for a lot of things and you’re vetted through that program, so when you come out with a certificate, manufacturers should be lining up to hire you because you’ve been through the program.

Ideas Lab: Are we set up for success for the program; will it do what we need it to do?

Gary Sinise: I think it is. I think what we need now is for it to spread across the country. We have programs going in Texas in Ft. Worth and Houston, something going pretty soon in New York and North Carolina. It’s starting to spread state by state. States are starting to get on board and see this a valuable thing for the state, valuable for the community in that state, valuable for the veteran community and valuable for the country.

We owe our veterans. We ask so much of them and have asked so much of them in the past dozen years.

My nephew just got back from Afghanistan, second tour there. He’s still in the service. He’s fearful of leaving the service because he’s not sure on the job front of what there would be for him, and I’ve talked to him a lot about some of the things he’s learned, but at the same time he’s fearful that what he’s learned in the military won’t be able to translate into the civilian workforce in some way.

So we want to communicate to our veterans that there are opportunities for them out there and Get Skills To Work is one big way we’re prepared to help them find those opportunities.

Brock N. Meeks is Editor of Ideas Lab.