Viewpoint -- How Manufacturers Can Honor Our Troops

Deployed military employees must receive necessary support

As the Iraq war heads toward its fifth year and National Guard and reserve soldiers make up 46% of our military, it's never been more important to think about what we in America's business community can -- and should -- be doing for the citizen-soldiers we employ. Now is the time to work together and find new ways to lessen the impact of deployed employee absences on both their families and employers.

Given the number of soldiers the manufacturing and transportation industries employ, we are all partners in our country's national defense and carry the responsibility that entails. As their employers, we must show accountability to our citizen soldiers and their families -- but also to the customers and shareholders who count on us to provide the level of service and the returns they have come to expect. It is possible to meet that challenge, for responsible employers to come together and evaluate how employee deployments are handled and whether there are ways to improve the process for all involved.

To examine these issues, it is important to look closely at what manufacturing and service businesses -- like trucking -- are up against. What specific challenges do you face when informed of an employee's imminent deployment, and how can you help cushion the impact for the employee, his or her family, and the business? The first step, of course, is finding a replacement to fill in during the absence. Depending on the facility's location, that can mean transferring an existing employee, training a new one, adding new shifts or overtime hours for existing crews or some combination of the three. The universal theme? Time and money, and it takes both. Training or retraining an employee often costs thousands of dollars and always takes a significant amount of time. Companies with National Guard and reserves members on staff must be prepared to make those expenditures when these employees are called for active duty. That tends to make a national issue a (very) local one.

Taking steps to manage the impact of employee deployments on our businesses requires a great deal of our attention, but there's another constituency that deserves just as much: the families of those employees.

Many companies choose to go above and beyond minimum legal requirements in providing security to the loved ones of deployed soldiers. They continue to cover full-family health benefits and even pay the difference between military pay and what the soldier was earning as an employee.

But there are issues that are larger than simple compensation and benefits. Each of us must weigh our ethical obligation to provide as much support as we can during the trying times of a military separation. Companies can choose to communicate with the families early and often to make sure they understand all pay and benefits programs offered. It may feel like a business risk to offer more than legally required, but it pales in comparison to the risks taken by our citizen soldiers every day and to the rewards of ensuring that good, motivated employees return to our organizations when their deployments end. When you look at it that way, financial assistance and solid communication are small prices to pay, indeed.

After all, these are valuable employees to any organization. A staff member in the National Guard or reserves invariably knows the meaning of leadership, responsibility and professionalism. They bring discipline, perseverance and grace under pressure to everything they do. We as manufacturing and transportation industry employers are lucky to have them, even if it means having to function without them on short notice when necessary.

Having said that, let's look for ways to improve the deployment/re-employment activities for all involved. How can we make it easier for businesses to do the right thing without unnecessarily facing declining revenues or service levels in the process? That brings us back to time and money. Most employers would agree that additional lead time between notice of deployment and reporting for duty would be enormously helpful in planning for employee absences. More time can open up options like cross-training and covering for the deployed employee without hiring a replacement. The goal is to minimize the operational disruption caused by the absence, reducing the financial risk to the organization and providing enough time for the deployed employee's family to adjust and adapt. These are common-sense objectives we can all work toward.

Another idea that's often discussed is government tax credits for companies employing National Guard and reserves members. These would reward businesses going above and beyond what is mandated by law in deployment pay and benefits, and also potentially help alleviate the expense of temporary labor during deployments. The number one reason soldiers point to when leaving the Guard or reserves is pressure from their employers, and tax credits like these could take the pressure off all parties.

These are just a few of the ideas that could assist employers in making the decision to fulfill ethical and patriotic duties to those employees who sacrifice so much to protect the American quality of life. If the years since 9/11 have taught us anything, it's that we can't take for granted the freedoms we enjoy as Americans. It is everyone's job to support those willing to sacrifice themselves for our country. What better way could we support the troops this year?

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