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Michelle Obama praises construction industry pledge to hire 100,000 veterans over 5 next years

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WASHINGTON - Michelle Obama said Monday that a pledge by the construction industry to hire more than 100,000 veterans by early 2019 is "a huge deal" that, besides doing right by former service members, will help companies grow and boost the U.S. economy for decades to come.

Mrs. Obama announced the commitment by more than 100 construction companies and associations at a conference sponsored by the Department of Labor and Joining Forces, a nationwide effort that she and Jill Biden, the wife of Vice-President Joe Biden, launched nearly three years ago to rally the U.S. around military veterans, active duty service members and their families.

"This is huge. It's a huge deal," the first lady said, noting that many of the companies are direct competitors.

Labour Secretary Thomas Perez said the announcement marked the first time that an entire industry has pledged to focus on providing jobs and training opportunities to military veterans.

"I know that you all have made this commitment not just because it is the patriotic thing to do, which it is," Mrs. Obama said, addressing the construction firms and associations represented at the conference. "You've done this because you know that it is the smart thing to do for your businesses."

Nearly 400,000 veterans and their spouses have been hired under Joining Forces since the initiative began in 2011, including by such household names as Disney, Starbucks, UPS and Walmart, Mrs. Obama wrote Monday in an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal.

Perez, in an interview before the conference, said he'd like to see other industries adopt the same approach of ensuring "that the hiring of veterans is always part of the mix and is really engrained in the DNA of the business model."

Mrs. Obama and Perez noted that the construction industry is one of the fastest growing in the country. Last month, the industry had its strongest single month of job growth in the past four years, adding 48,000, according to government data.

Nearly 180,000 construction jobs were created in the past year, Perez said. About 1.5 million such jobs are forecast to be added through 2022.

Monday's announcement is also timely because of the coming end, later this year, of the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan. Thousands of troops will be returning home and many will be looking for jobs to help support their families.

Unemployment among service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, also known as the 9-11 generation, has declined steadily during the past two years and stood at 7.9 per cent in January, versus an overall unemployment rate of 6.6 per cent. President Barack Obama often says these veterans shouldn't have to fight for a job after they have fought for their country on the battlefield.

Taking a long view, Mrs. Obama said the industry's commitment is also about more than just putting highly skilled, highly motivated individuals into good jobs with good salaries.

"It's also about providing our companies with the very best workers so that they can keep growing, and they can keep creating even more jobs and strengthening our economy for decades to come," she said.

Jacobs Engineering, Cianbro, the Home Builders Institute and the Associated General Contractors of America are among the dozens of participating companies and associations.

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Follow Darlene Superville on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/dsupervilleap

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