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Where to be a fed: What top federal workplaces do for vets

Jun. 4, 2012 - 03:17PM   |   Last Updated: Jun. 4, 2012 - 03:17PM  |  
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Corneal Hunter couldn't be more pleased. The State Department budget analyst has not only found a job where his skills are valued but one where his military service is appreciated.

"For one thing, I am not the only one here. There are many other prior military, so there is that sense of having something in common," says Hunter, who left the Army as a staff sergeant in 2004 after 20 years in uniform.

"Say you need a DD-214 [proof of military service]. There is someone to help you process that," he says. "For those who just got out of the military, maybe there are things they forgot or didn't get, and we have representation to assist with that."

Hunter did well for himself. After leaving the service, he landed in one of the best federal places to work, according to rankings by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. These agencies have generous human resources policies, supportive workplaces and, in many cases, an environment especially supportive of former military. Among the best:

Smithsonian Institution

MILITARY: At the Smithsonian, military support starts at the top, with many leaders having come from the armed services. The mission itself reflects esteem for the military way of life. "We have the Air and Space Museum, which to a large extent is military-oriented. In the American History Museum, a significant portion deals with American military history. Even the art museums have exhibitions about the Civil War," says Jim Douglas, director of the Office of Human Resources.

One-third of Smithsonian employees work in security, a natural fit for many former service members.

MORALE: The Smithsonian offers flexible work hours and telecommuting options. An employee-run Community Committee uses webcasts to promote health and fitness and sponsors company outings, including an annual picnic on the National Mall that draws thousands.

Smithsonian T-shirt giveaways are a sign of satisfaction. "People are really proud to wear the shirt, and I think that says something," Douglas says.

WHAT MAKES IT SPECIAL: "For those of us who are on the Mall, when you see visitors from around the world, you can really see the effects of why we are here," Douglas says. "Whether it's a kid from Peoria or a visitor from Hungary, you see how it touches them. People get a lot of satisfaction from being associated with that, from having a positive effect on people."

Social Security Administration

MILITARY: For those who think of Social Security as just some paperwork and a box on the W-2, think again. The agency manages retirement benefits and supports the needs of survivors and the disabled and its leadership takes that work seriously.

"Our greatest strength, especially among veterans, is that there is an employee/mission match," says Dr. Reginald Wells, deputy commissioner of human resources. Reflecting the military's culture of service, "we recruit and hire people who want to make a difference in people's lives. The people in this agency have a clear and profound understanding of what this agency is here to do, and they are committed to doing it."

MORALE: The agency offers extensive career development, with separate programs for senior executives, middle managers and those looking to get into management. There also are online training opportunities, as well as employee interest groups representing the concerns of Latinos, African-Americans, gays and lesbians, and veterans, among others.

Lately, the department's military veterans have been pressing for updates in recruiting and hiring of their peers. By having a voice within the organization, "it gives us a really good feel for what our veterans are thinking," Wells says.

WHAT MAKES IT SPECIAL: For veterans, it's a working culture that suits their long-held habits.

"The veterans who transition over to us find it very comfortable because of the 24/7 dynamic. We are always in mission mode, always trying to get things done," Wells says. "There has always been a natural, neat fit between the kind of service that is required of you in uniform and the kind of service we provide here at Social Security."

Government Accountability Office

MILITARY: GAO has taken an active interest in putting veterans to work. The agency participates in veterans job fairs, especially those for disabled veterans. It recently chartered an interest group to ensure veterans' involvement in employment and other issues.

MORALE: Come early, stay late: Doors open at 6 a.m., and they kick you out at 7 p.m. if that's what your schedule calls for. Telework options are available for short-term crises such as surgery that keeps you at home. GAO will reimburse employees for professional certifications, and the Washington, D.C., office has on-site child care.

At the unit level, GAO employees keep busy with potluck lunches, sports teams and other informal gatherings. The agency encourages book clubs, language study groups and community service projects, including a long-running tutoring program at Walker Jones Elementary School in Washington, D.C. Annual awards for excellence can range from $500 to $2,000 for top performers.

For David Bieler, morale is a direct outgrowth of mission.

"GAO is really unique," says Bieler, who left the Air Force as a first lieutenant in 2008 and now is a GAO analyst. "It's a government agency that's been tasked with the job of criticizing other government agencies for their shortcomings. That makes us realize: If we are going to criticize another agency, we'd better have our act together first. I think that's why GAO is such a well-managed organization."

WHAT MAKES IT SPECIAL: HR leaders say education lies at the core of GAO's status as a great place to work. "There is a two-year entry level training program with core courses and movement from team to team. We also have a formal mentoring program one-on-one and as group mentoring. We have on-site learning all the time, with hundreds of courses each year," Chief Human Capital Officer Carolyn Taylor says. "Overall, the support for career development is outstanding."

The jobs themselves become learning opportunities, as employees get the chance to rotate periodically between different positions. "People get a chance to continually learn within their teams. They are always learning something new so they don't get stale," Taylor says. "Everyone has a chance to grow."

State Department

MILITARY: The international nature of the State Department's mission dovetails nicely with the interests and experiences of many veterans who have served overseas.

Hunter served six years in Germany and now interacts regularly with U.S. embassies abroad. "That experience really helps," he said. "It's good for me to have that knowledge of how things work overseas."

The department has actively reached out: In May 2011, for example, it co-hosted an intelligence community job fair that drew some 250 wounded troops. Each bureau within the department has its own veterans coordinator responsible for ensuring best practices in veteran employment issues.

MORALE: The Family Liaison Office works to improve the quality of life for those overseas, helping them transition smoothly into their foreign posts. FLO operates an active support group, fielding questions about money, education, employment and other topics of interest to families overseas.

Closer to home, State offers a gym and day care, plus a loaner bike program for commuters and an annual fall art and book fair at its Washington, D.C., headquarters.

WHAT MAKES IT SPECIAL: For Hunter, it's all about the lifestyle.

"There is flexibility in the working schedule. You can pretty much come in at the times that are convenient for you," he says. "And the environment is a positive environment with my team, my co-workers. When I was new, people were always helpful when there were issues. Everyone is easy to talk to."

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