FORTUNE — “Hiring veterans is one of those can’t-miss things, like motherhood and apple pie,” says Harley Lippman, CEO of IT consulting and staffing firm Genesis10. “Everyone’s strongly in favor of it. But how much of that is just lip service?”
Good question. On the one hand, hundreds of big employers from Wal-Mart
to Bank of America
have stepped up their efforts to bring more vets on board. A nonprofit called the 100,000 Jobs Mission, for instance, has grown to more than 154 companies from just 11 three years ago, and its members have hired about 140,000 veterans so far.
The government is trying, too. Employers have received tax credits for hiring vets since late 2011, and last month the Department of Veterans Affairs launched a website aimed at helping vets and their spouses find training and jobs.
How well all this is working all depends on your perspective. Some encouraging numbers: Unemployment among returnees from Iraq and Afghanistan fell a little in 2013, from 7.5% to 6.8% — a big improvement from almost 15% in 2010 (versus just under 10% for the rest of the workforce in the same year). It’s now just about 1% higher than the overall jobless rate.
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Yet the Department of Labor reports that, among people in their twenties leaving the military, unemployment is stuck at a lofty 12.1%. And many more veterans are coming home soon. As U.S. military involvement overseas winds down, the armed services are shrinking headcount by more than 300,000 each year.
One irony here is that many vets leave the service with advanced IT skills that are in huge demand. IT job site Dice.com says unemployment among software developers, for instance, now averages a tiny 2.8%. But job interviewers struggling with the talent shortage often overlook vets’ knowledge and experience.
“People with military backgrounds get stereotyped as security guards,” notes Harley Lippmann — and he doesn’t mean computer security. “So when they do find jobs, they’re often woefully underemployed. We hired one woman, a veteran who learned her topnotch tech skills in the Army, who was working as a waitress in a pizza place.”
In the past two years, Genesis10 has helped hundreds of qualified vets find jobs with clients of its consulting and staffing services. Among the firm’s own employees, who number about 2,000, roughly 8% are veterans. Some of those hires have come through the career seminars Genesis10 holds in cities across the U.S. where the company has offices.
For companies that want to hire more veterans but are unsure where to start, Lippman suggests a five step plan. First, he says, “you have to have a formal effort, and it has to come from the top, so the people in the middle who do the actual hiring know you’re serious. Otherwise, it just isn’t going to happen.”
Next, put someone in charge of that effort who understands the military mindset. Lippman chose Nick Swaggert, who served two tours of duty in Iraq and is still in the Marine Corps Reserves.
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Third, have that person design a training program. Swaggert runs what Genesis10 calls a “reverse boot camp” for ex-military job candidates that teaches them how to translate their experience into terms the civilian world can grasp, and how to move from the military chain of command to more collaborative business settings. “The government usually gives people leaving the service one week of training on these topics,” notes Lippman. “It isn’t enough.”
The fourth step: Pair each vet with two mentors, one a fellow veteran (Genesis10 calls these “battle buddies”) and one a seasoned corporate type who can explain how the private sector operates.
Last but far from least, tell hiring managers it’s okay to give veterans an edge. “To tap this enormous pool of talent, companies have to make it a priority,” Lippman says. “We tell our hiring managers, ‘If the job description lists 10 specific criteria and you have two candidates — a vet with seven of them and a non-veteran who has eight — don’t hesitate. Hire the veteran.”