Veteran unemployment numbers have steadily improved over the last several years. The latest figures for October put the overall veteran unemployment rate at 2.9%; the so-called “Gulf-War II” veteran unemployment rate was only slightly higher at 3.1%. Veterans now find themselves employed at a higher rate than the overall population.

But as Charles Hodges, a retired Army officer who now works for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Hiring Our Heroes initiative put it, there is a “gap in IT talent” between the need for information technology workers with a security clearance, and the number of qualified applicants. Illustrating that point, on ClearanceJobs right now, there are more than 14,000 job openings for cleared IT professionals.

Filling the gap with Veterans

Hodges hosted an event at the National Press Club last Thursday on “Closing the Clearance Gap.” Daily Intel was there, and spoke with retired Marine Maj. Gen. Chris Cortez, vice president for military affairs at Microsoft. After retiring in 2006, Cortez has made closing this gap his personal mission. He saw that not only did Microsoft have thousands of unfilled opportunities, there were nearly half a million job openings in the IT industry across the country. He knew there was a way to place a portion of the 200,000 veterans separating from the service annually into those roles.

Veterans have the work ethic, adaptability, and soft-skills to be great employees in any capacity. So Cortez set out to develop a program to make any veteran, regardless of their military specialty, someone an information technology hiring manager would want to have on their team. The result is the Microsoft Software and Systems Academy, an intensive 18-week program to train veterans for IT careers.

In the five years the program has existed, Microsoft has graduated more than 1,100 students—a 95% graduation rate. The program teaches technical skills, but also job-seeking skills like resume writing and interviewing. “What we do is create conditions for success,” Cortez said. By the time a veteran has completed the program, he or she “stands a really good chance of getting, not a job, a career.”

Veteran-Friendly vs. Veteran-Ready

The statistics back him up. The program also boasts a 95% placement rate… and not just with Microsoft. More than 360 different companies have hired MSSA graduates, and starting annual salaries average $75,000. “That’s a game changer,” Cortez said.

He emphasized that the program is for anyone, not just those who worked IT jobs in the military. “Today we find ourselves in a world where technology is evolving,” Cortez said, “It requires a technology that’s secure like never before.” Because of that evolution, the need for cleared professionals to fill those roles is greater than ever. Microsoft is committed to training that new workforce.

The MSSA is expanding its offerings. It began at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, close to Microsoft’s home in Seattle, and is now offered at 14 installations across the country. Cortez intends to take the program to the next level. While 1,100 graduates is impressive, he intends to expand the program to 1,000 graduates a year. “Phase II” begins in March when MSSA begins at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii.

Hodges, the Hiring Our Heroes representative, recognized that all companies are, at least nominally, “veteran friendly.” After all, it would be economic suicide to become the company that was known as being veteran unfriendly. What’s needed, he said, are companies that are “veteran ready,” with “C-Suite buy-in” and concrete goals for veteran hiring.

The economy is driving change, Hodges said. Chris Cortez and his team at Microsoft are leading the way; I hope more companies decide to follow that lead.

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Tom McCuin is a strategic communication consultant and retired Army Reserve Civil Affairs and Public Affairs officer whose career includes serving with the Malaysian Battle Group in Bosnia, two tours in Afghanistan, and three years in the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs in the Pentagon. When he’s not devouring political news, he enjoys sailboat racing and umpiring Little League games (except the ones his son plays in) in Alexandria, Va. Follow him on Twitter at @tommccuin