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The Boston Globe

Opinion

JULIETTE KAYYEM

Walmart’s veterans program is temporary relief

Walmart, the world’s largest private employer with over two million retail workers, deserves credit for doing what no other major company has done before. It has promised to hire 100,000 recent veterans over the next five years. In an announcement on Tuesday, Walmart US President Bill Simon urged fellow retailers to follow his lead: “We could be the ones who step up for our heroes just as they stood for us.”

Walmart can’t be that fabulous, right? It’s not. The piling on began immediately, with critics of a company often accused of unfair practices calling its offer a pathetic public relations stunt. But Walmart, like most major corporations, is a complicated entity with good works and aggressive profit grabs happening under the same roof.

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So forget parsing Walmart’s motivations. It is the veterans we should be worried about. Walmart’s plan will help veterans meet their immediate need for a meager paycheck, but it won’t give them what they most desire over the long term: sustained support and training, now and in the future, that connect skills learned in the military with economic opportunities. Indeed, veterans’ long-term careers would barely be advanced if every retailer took up Walmart’s cause.

Walmart’s announcement, which was vague in its details but still earned First Lady Michelle Obama’s praise, does not promise full-time employment. Veterans are likely to receive the same low wages (on average, $8 an hour) and negligible benefits that have made Walmart the target of so many labor activists. One study suggests that as many as 80 percent of its employees could be on food stamps.

Clearly, the largeness of Walmart’s gesture is a reflection of its hiring capacity; due to its massive annual turnover, amounting to 37 percent of its work force, Walmart hires about half a million US employees a year. And it has been coming under increased criticism lately. Walmart is America’s number-one gun seller. It can also be grotesquely arrogant — in its bribery of Mexican officials, for instance, and its initial rejection of Vice President Joe Biden’s invitation to a gun-control discussion.

Addressing the employment needs of veterans isn’t just about making sure they get a paycheck.

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Of course, the veterans who take the jobs the company is now promising can’t be faulted. After all, the unemployment rate among veterans hovers at 11 percent, compared to 7.5 percent for the rest of the population. But ultimately this initiative may do more to boost Walmart’s image than the careers of veterans, especially if it detracts from the urgency to provide more job training and support. Matching veterans’ skills with the right jobs will remain an elusive goal. For unemployed workers, Walmart’s plan is a useful Band-Aid. It’s not a coherent long-term strategy.

Nor is it consistent with how we have aided military veterans in the past. The GI bills, for generations from World War II to today, were meant to link the support owed to fighters to the necessities of America’s own economic advancement. Such investments were animated by a profound and still-relevant notion that access to education will provide, for this most worthy pool of students, employment opportunities that will also help to grow the economy. America has already invested millions of dollars in each of these veterans — an investment that could be lost at the register of a Walmart check-out line.

Today, addressing the employment needs of veterans isn’t just about making sure they get a paycheck. Seriously, name a major company that doesn’t want to hire a veteran. Most public employers also give favorable scoring to veterans. The desire is there. The goal should be to address the obstacles standing in the way of better opportunities. Often, veterans find the job-seeking process overwhelming, discover that the kinds of resume-enhancing tactics that some people use to get jobs is inconsistent with their selfless training, and carry the physical and emotional wounds of war.

Whatever the intent behind Walmart’s announcement — was it a goodwill gesture? a public relations stunt? — the best way to judge its offer is in the context of the larger effort to help veterans reintegrate into society. Is this what a grateful nation owes a volunteer force after a decade of war? It will pay the bills, barely, for some. But surely veterans deserve more.

Juliette Kayyem can be reached at jkayyem@globe.com and Twitter
@juliettekayyem.

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