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ORLANDO, FLA.—Former First Lady Laura Bush made a personal appeal to HR professionals on June 25, 2014, to help the nation’s veterans transition to civilian jobs.
“One of the things that George and I would like, that every one of you can do in your organizations … is to look at our returning vets when you are hiring,” said Bush during her keynote speech on the closing day of the 2014 Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Annual Conference & Exposition.
The George W. Bush Institute is working with Syracuse University to help veterans translate their military skills into words that civilian employers understand. “The vocabulary isn’t really the same,” she said.
When a veteran is asked about his work experience, he might say, “I’m a sniper.”
“But all of you would say, ‘well, we don’t need a sniper, ’ ” she joked.
“One of the things we are trying to do is bridge that divide and help our veterans better quantify and translate what their experience is so that when they fill out a form to get a job, they can use words that mean something to you.
“So I hope you will make a real effort to reach out to veterans. Every one of you knows there is nothing more fulfilling in life than work,” she said. “It means a lot to people. I hope you can help translate the skills our veterans have, to see what they can help you do.”
She also urged HR professionals to help with a lifelong passion of hers—improving literacy.
“I believe every child in America should learn to read,” said Bush, a librarian by training. “I believe literacy is an essential foundation of democracy.”
Bush recalled what a thrill it was for her to host the first National Book Festival in September 2001 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
But the country's mood changed drastically several days later on Sept. 11 when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. She noted the change in her husband, whom she said she fell in love with in large part because of his sense of humor.
“There were days when there was no laughing, no wisecracks,” she said. She saw tears in his eyes after visiting parents and spouses of men and women who had been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
She recalled her fear two months later when he threw the ceremonial first pitch at the 2001 World Series game at Yankee Stadium. He was standing alone out on the pitcher’s mound with 57,000 people in the stadium, “when our country is at its most fearful and vulnerable, when an attack from any direction could come at any moment.
“All I could do was hold my breath and remind myself that this is the job of the president,” she said. “But you know what I found out? It’s not only the president’s job. It’s the job of any American—Republican, Democrat or Independent—who has the courage to take a stand and make a difference, who's willing to step up to his or her own pitcher’s mound, to face failure, humiliation or even mortal danger.”
In the room full of HR professionals, SHRM Chief Executive Officer Henry G. “Hank” Jackson said he felt compelled to ask Bush what she would write in a job description for the first lady. She noted the position isn’t paid, and that she was elected by just one man—her husband.
However, she acknowledged the influence that comes with the position, simply by being in the public eye. That hit home when she and her daughter Jenna were in a department store and a sales clerk thanked her for speaking in support of the women of Afghanistan, she said.
Everyone expects the first lady to be the hostess at White House events, she noted. “But they do many more things. And now we’re going to find out someday what the first gentleman will do.”
Jackson also asked Bush about her management philosophy.
“Treat people with dignity. Treat people with respect. I think that is important especially now when things seem so uncivil in our society. Part of the reason is because we can be anonymous on all the social websites. People can say whatever they want. There’s no filter anymore,” Bush said. “Every one of you, because of what you do, has a chance to try to spread that civility throughout your organizations—and that’s a good beginning.”
Dori Meinert is senior writer for HR Magazine.
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