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Wal-Mart plans to hire 100,000 veterans

Retail giant Wal-Mart has announced that over the next five years it projects hiring 100,000 honorably discharged vets who are in their first 12 months off active duty. NBC's Brian Williams reports.

Wal-Mart will hire every veteran who wants to trade their camo fatigues for khakis and dark-blue polos, the company announced Tuesday.

"Sadly, too many of those who fought for us abroad now find themselves fighting for jobs at home," Wal-Mart U.S. President and CEO Bill Simon said in a speech before the National Retail Federation. "Not every returning veteran wants to work in retail.  But every veteran who does will have a place to go. We project that Wal-Mart will hire more than 100,000 veterans over the next five years."

As of December 2012, the unemployment rate for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars was 10.8 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The current national unemployment rate is 7.8 percent. By the end of 2012, there were 226,000 unemployed Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

The announcement comes at a time when Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer and the nation's largest private employer, is trying to burnish its image. The company has been criticized over the years for offering low-paying jobs and its sourcing from Chinese manufacturers has been brought into question. Recently, allegations have been leveled that the company made bribes in Mexico to obtain building permits and there have been calls for improved supply chain oversight following the deadly fire at a Bangladesh factory that supplied clothes to several global retailers, including Wal-Mart.

The retailer's hiring program will be open to veterans honorably discharged within the past 12 months. "All types" of jobs will be available, spokesperson Brooke Buchanan told TODAY, from part time to full time and management. These positions will be in stores, regional distribution centers, and the headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. Salary will depend on position. Benefits are included for full-time jobs.

Openings will be be dependent on each facilities' staffing needs, the company said. No new positions will be created. Employee transfers between facilities will not count as new hires towards the 100,000 projection. However, the company said, if someone leaves their job at Wal-Mart and then comes back to work for the retailer later, that will be considered a new hire.

Wal-Mart currently employs 1.4 million and "experiences significant turnover in associates each year," according to a March regulatory filing. Over 100,000 of those employees are veterans, according to the company, which declined to provide the number of currently available open positions.

Under employer tax incentives for hiring veterans extended as part of the fiscal cliff deal, Wal-Mart can get a tax credit of $2,400 for hiring veterans that have been searching for work for at least four weeks but less than six months. Veterans with service-related disabilities are worth even more, up to $9,600 per hire.

Several veterans groups greeted the announcement with gusto. Nonprofit veteran's advocacy group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) founder and CEO Paul Rieckhoff told TODAY that "IAVA applauds Wal-Mart's leadership on veteran hiring... we need more employers to appreciate that these young men and women are not a charity, they are an investment. Wal-Mart's footprint is large enough that they can single-handedly impact that unemployment number, especially if they exceed their 100,000 jobs goal." On Jan. 9, the IAVA announced receiving a $50,000 grant from Wal-Mart to promote employment of veterans in New York state which the group said it will use to build an online job-search tool and fund a job fair for veterans.

An interesting wrinkle in the program is that job-seeking vets who meet the eligibility requirements will get "priority applicant status." If a job is between two equally qualified candidates, one a vet and one a civilian, the vet gets the job, Buchanan said.

In the same speech announcing the veteran's initiative, Wal-Mart's CEO also announced plans for Wal-Mart and Sam's club to buy an additional $50 billion in U.S.-made products over the next years. The approach is two-pronged. The retailer will increase purchases of categories that are already sourced in the U.S., like basic clothing, sporting goods, games, storage products and paper goods, and will encourage the development of U.S. production in furniture, textiles, and high-end appliances, said Simon.

The White House, which has made promoting the hiring of veterans by the private sector a priority, welcomed Wal-Mart's pledge to hire more veterans. 

"This is exactly the kind of act we hoped would be possible when we started Joining Forces — a concrete example of our nation's love and support that our troops, veterans, and their families can feel in their lives every day," said first lady Michelle Obama in a prepared statement. "So today, my challenge is simple: for every business in America to follow Wal-Mart's lead by finding innovative solutions that both make sense for their workplaces and make a difference for our veterans and their families."

In August 2011, President Barack Obama issued a challenge to employers to hire or train 100,000 veterans and military spouses by 2013, a torch that Mrs. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have picked up as part of the Joining Forces initiative. At an event in August 2012, Mrs. Obama announced that more than 2,000 American companies had taken up the challenge, hiring 125,000 veterans and military spouses.

Veterans often face unique challenges re-entering civilian life. They may carry physical or mental disabilities, such as PTSD and traumatic brain injury. Wal-Mart told TODAY that veterans would have to pass the standard background and criminal record checks but would not be subjected to any additional psychological screening. A standard employee telephone helpline would be made available to employed veterans suffering from PTSD or any other disabilities, Wal-Mart said.

"Obviously this is a good move that an employer wants to hire veterans. Our concern is that the jobs might be low wage and not offer enough health benefits," said Paul Sullivan, a board member for D.C.-based veterans' rights group Veterans for Common Sense. "I am concerned this is a public relations exercise to make the company look good. Veterans need fair wages, union representation and a job that offers a career, not just a low-wage position."