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Salesforce, Uber have message for vets: 'I Want You'

Dane Whitley had an assortment of odd jobs for the first five years after leaving the Navy. He worked at a guitar shop and played music in his Indiana hometown, before moving to Raleigh, North Carolina, where he picked up a low-level tech support gig. His expertise in electronic warfare and a six-month stint in West Africa weren't translating to the civilian world.

Earlier this year, he entered a program designed to train military veterans, even those with no coding experience, on using and deploying Salesforce.com's software. Now at 30, he's implementing Salesforce tools for a living and encouraging others to follow suit.

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"It was an overnight game-changer," Whitley said. "Working tech support versus Salesforce consulting is night and day."

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Salesforce is touting that as one of its central messages this week at Dreamforce, the company's annual conference that lures 135,000 customers and partners to downtown San Francisco. Veterans events include networking and training sessions and, of course, a happy hour. A panel Wednesday afternoon will feature executives from Salesforce, Starbucks, Uber and financial services firm USAA discussing plans to put veterans to work.

For Salesforce, the world's biggest provider of customer relationship management software, that means training 10,000 vets on its technology. Starbucks similarly has committed to hiring 10,000 vets and military spouses over the next five years in positions ranging from baristas up to district managers and even in the corporate ranks. Uber aims to turn 50,000 vets and spouses into drivers for its rapidly expanding ride-sharing service.

The effort has its share of PR behind it, and rightfully so. San Francisco's tech scene, home to Salesforce, Uber and scores of emerging start-ups, has been the subject of nationwide criticism of late, because of the widening income gap that's forming amid the current tech boom and the view that programmers have become the entitled few.

Uber has taken further flak for running a ruthless campaign against rival Lyft and for shunning rules that have for decades governed the taxi industry.

But according to the companies, that's not why they're making an overt effort to do good. Nor is this about charity, even though Salesforce founder Marc Benioff is a well-known philanthropist and proponent of volunteerism among his employees. Rather, they argue, going after vets is just smart business.

At Uber, military vets who already drive for the company get particularly high ratings from passengers, said Emil Michael, a senior vice president.

"They're more disciplined, more curious, and drive longer hours," Michael said. "Our approach is to be responsible and take advantage of additional skills that military members bring to bear."

The company introduced UberMILITARY in September and signed on former Defense Secretary Bob Gates as its volunteer chairman. Gates has also been a corporate board member at Starbucks since 2012. Uber plans to recruit heavily on military bases and offer vehicle financing for drivers that need to purchase cars. Michael said that new features specifically targeting vets will roll out soon.

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Joblessness among military vets is a big problem. There are 2.8 million U.S. veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and according to the Labor Department, the unemployment rate for veterans who served on active duty since 2001 is 9 percent, compared with an overall national rate of 5.9 percent.

"There's a role for us to do something important here, and for the right reasons," said John Kelly, senior vice president for global responsibility and public policy at Starbucks, and an ex-Microsoft executive.

The Seattle-based coffee maker launched its initiative in November and has since brought on more than 1,000 vets, Kelly said. With more than 23,000 stores globally, Starbucks is in constant need of people who can manage complex supply chains, shipping and delivery systems and large geographical areas, he said. And the company is a heavy tech shop, from big data on the back end to popular mobile apps for consumers.

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"There are absolutely I.T. jobs, logistical jobs and management jobs" available, said Kelly, adding that most of the jobs will be at or near stores. "We have a broad diversity of jobs and pathways. The challenge is to make sure we match them appropriately."

The Salesforce program that Whitley, the Navy vet, entered is mostly focused on filling consultant jobs for the many thousands of clients that are signing up with the company's cloud software. By partnering with two nonprofits—Veterans2Work and Vets in Tech—the company has created a two-week training program, after which even non-techies can get hired in support roles, said Mike Rosenbaum, an executive vice president at Salesforce.

From there, they can quickly gain expertise and move up the ranks. For the past five months, Whiltey has worked as a consultant for West Monroe Partners, a consulting firm with offices in the U.S. and Canada.

"The real realization is that with the training and experience you get in the military combined with intensive training in technology, we're seeing people get high-paying jobs," Rosenbaum said. "It's not just a run-of-the-mill job."