Exclusive: Michelle Obama Announces Travel Industry to Hire 3,000 Military Veterans and Spouses

The news could mean more jobs for vets like 27-year-old Jeremy Vandekar.

Listen to Jeremy Vandekar’s credentials and you’d assume he’d have no problem finding a job: four years as a member of Marine Recon, the U.S. Marine Corps' elite special operations unit, two deployments in Iraq, graduate of Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, and author of a memoir, Kicking Ace – Taking Names.  And yet, after the 27-year-old graduated and realized he didn’t want to become a commercial pilot, he couldn’t find a job.

“I was applying for everything from nuclear plant specialist to Enterprise management trainee, even at grocery stores everywhere,” Vandekar told me in an interview. “The unemployment was ridiculous, I couldn’t find a job at Home Depot, Pet Smart, anywhere.” But then he applied to Enterprise’s management trainee program and was hired in December. “I realized that this was not just going to be a stand-at-the-counter-and-say-hello-to-people-kind-of-job,” he said. “This was a full blown career that had really good potential…I love it, I can’t say enough about it.”

New Jobs for Veterans & Military Spouses

What happened to Jeremy could soon happen to other veterans and military spouses. First Lady Michelle Obama announced that the American Society of Travel Agents, the largest travel agency association in the world, has committed to hiring 3,000 veterans and military spouses by 2014, iVillage has learned exclusively.

“This commitment means that thousands of our heroes can build meaningful careers and provide for their families,” said Mrs. Obama. “And we’re especially excited that many of these jobs are tailor-made for our military spouses, who can keep their job as they move to new duty stations around the country and the world.”

The companies who have pledged to hire veterans and military spouses include Enterprise Holdings, Avis Budget Group, Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group, Hertz Corporation, American Express Consumer Travel Network, Amadeus North America and Orbitz Worldwide.

“The beauty of this program is it essentially opens up the jobs that are required, everything from entry level telemarketer who is taking inbound calls or providing customer services all the way through to development… and engineering,” said Tony Gonchar, CEO of the American Society of Travel Agents.

Brad Cooper, executive director of Joining Forces, the first lady and Dr. Jill Biden's military families initative, added, “There are really a broad range of job options and these are companies that have reach around the country… so there is an accessibility component that makes this appealing."

The Perspective from a Military Spouse

Erica Pena-Vest knows why accessibility is important. As a military wife, she had to give up her public relations career to move with her husband, an active duty officer in the U.S. Navy. She founded a site with the largest collection of military travel discounts found anywhere and applauds the move to hire military spouses and veterans in the travel industry. “It's a natural fit for military spouses because we are so good at travel, we achieve an expertise in that area that is unlike any other," the mother of two said in an interview. "Our civilian counterparts, as we call them, will never achieve the fluency in travel that a military spouse has because of the fact that we have to constantly uproot and move our families around the world."

"You are dipping into a pool of people that are tailor made for representing U.S. travel because we are already used to representing our country, which is what travel is all about.  It's also something that we have a natural affinity and grace in," she said.

The Other Industries Already On Board

The move by the American Society of Travel Agents follows announcements last fall by the first lady, as part of Joining Forces, about other private sector commitments: the American Logistics Association, which includes major manufacturers such as Tysons Foods, Coca Cola, Unilever and ConAgra, committing to hiring 25,000 veterans and military spouses by the end of 2013, the International Franchise Association, which represents 1,100 franchises, committing to hiring 80,000 veterans and spouses by 2014, and the Military Spouse Employment Partnership, which includes nearly 100 companies including Microsoft, Home Depot and Citi, pledging to hire 20,000 military spouses.

“There are some things in life that are just visceral and the belief that I have in terms of paying it forward, paying back debts that we owe,” said Gonchar, who says he will be personally overseeing each travel company’s commitment. “This is the largest debt that we could owe to anybody, those people who protect us and sacrifice their lives on our behalf is something we should not take for granted.”

To help get the word out to veterans and military spouses, Enterprise Holdings and Avis Budget Group recently participated in a hiring fair for wounded warriors and their spouses in Maryland. On March 28, at a hiring fair at Ft. Hood, Texas, one of the leading companies participating will be Hertz.

Jeremy Vandekar: Remember His Name!

Jeremy Vandekar thinks the new hiring commitments are "awesome" but believes the only way to ensure success is by educating the business community and the veterans.  "The private sector, yes, they have to be made aware that yes, veterans, might not have the skills but they absolutely have the motivation," he said, adding that veterans are going to work "so much harder that most people who have not been in the military."

The second thing, according to Vandekar, is the veterans themselves need to be educated.  "It doesn't make any difference if the veteran doesn't want to be hired or doesn't seek help," he said.

As for his own career, I would say we should just remember his name: Jeremy Vandekar. When his Enterprise recruiter asked where he saw himself in a few years, Vandekar said he wanted to be exactly where she was.  He will likely get there -- and soar to even greater heights.

May more companies see just what veterans like Vandekar and military spouses can do!

Kelly Wallace is Chief Correspondent of iVillage and was one of only five reporters who recently traveled with Michelle Obama during her Let’s Move anniversary tour.  Read Kelly’s blog about the trip here and follow Kelly on Twitter (@kellywallacetv). 

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