EDCUtah is highlighting a Utah community organization or multicultural resource group each month. This is part of an effort to inform our investors about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) best practices and resources in Utah.
For October’s profile, we spoke to Gary Harter, executive director, and Taylor Ricks, communications and marketing director, of the state’s Department of Veterans and Military Affairs.
Why are veterans important to economic development in Utah?
GH: As a group, Utah’s veterans drive $3.2 billion in economic activity and support more than 36,000 jobs in Utah. That $3.2 billion is part of an overall $19.3 billion of economic impact that the military has in our state. We have nearly 140,000 veterans living in the state, ranging from 3,716 World War II veterans to 62,482 current conflict veterans. We also have about 15,000 active duty service members here.
TR: Part of that economic impact is driven by veterans employed by organizations in Utah, veteran-owned businesses, the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Salt Lake City, and veterans homes in Salt Lake City, Ogden, Payson, and Ivins. The VA Hospital, for example, served 66,000 unique patients in 2019, including a total of nearly 390,000 outpatient visits.
What’s the mission of your department?
GH: Our overarching goal to to allow veterans, military and their families to live and succeed within the state ofUtah. We recognize and appreciate their service, and we understand that they have a lot to offer beyond those already substantial contributions. Veterans volunteer for stuff – they make tremendous community members, have amazing work ethic, and have a positive impact wherever they live.
In practice, our office is a clearinghouse. We serve veterans and current service members and their families by opening doors to benefits, education, and jobs. We also advocate for Utah’s military installations and defense sector.
Where are our veterans coming from?
TR: Lots of them end their careers at Hill Air Force Base or other installations in our state and they decide to stay. Gary is an example. He is originally from the Philadelphia area, became a Colonel in the Army. His final assignment was as Commander, U.S. Army Dugway Proving Ground. He liked Utah and decided to stay.
GH: You can’t get rid of me now. Along those lines, Taylor is working on “Landing Zone Utah” – an active initiative to attract veterans or soon-to-retire military personnel to consider Utah. Our catchwords are “Keep them here, bring them back, or attract them in.”
Utah sent 28,000 people to Vietnam, but more than 47,000 Vietnam veterans decided to live in Utah. We know Utah has been a great place for veterans for years, but it isn’t always known elsewhere; this campaign will push it out more deliberately.
The legislature is also doing the work to increase Utah’s desirability for veterans. One recent bill involves taxes on retired military pay – pensions if you will – and this is making us more attractive than ever. We’re now one of about two dozen states that do not tax military retirement pay.
A number of Utah employers have Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) aimed at veterans. What advice do you have for these employers?
GH: First of all, engage with our department. Come talk to us, or we’ll come to you, and we can bring in the Veterans Administration as well. We’ll bring anybody you need and get your ERG connected to the range of programs we’ve talked about.
Veterans are a humble group. They don’t want to take something for themselves so it’s sometimes hard to get them to take services. We engage with and help them find what they need, or work through the families who love them and will advocate for them. ERGs are a great channel for these kind of communications and conversations.
Second, say thank you to your veteran employees – recognize and honor their experiences and their desire for selfless service.
What else can EDCUtah investors do to support veterans in our state?
GH: For one thing, you can donate or provide volunteers to small nonprofits like Continue Mission, which helps with mental health issues and reintegration. We have a list of similar organizations that can use your support.
TR: We also have volunteer opportunities with the veterans homes in Utah. You can see more on those homes at https://veterans.utah.gov/veterans-homes/.
Last question - What are other ways that Utah creates a sense of belonging for veterans?
GH: Many veterans come to Utah because of the recreational opportunities and quality of life, but they are also connected to each other and move where their friends are located. We’re working to keep them connected and teach them about the resources Utah offers. It also helps that we have one of the best regarded VA Hospitals in the country.
TR: There’s also a sense of economic opportunity here, and our department offers or works with other organizations to bring a range of services to veterans who are looking for employment or looking to start and grow a business. Some of these include:
· Veterans Business Resource Center at Salt LakeCommunity College, which mentored 370 veterans last year and helped launch 38 start-ups.
· The Department of Workforce Services’ Transition Assistance Program, which assists veterans to transfer military service to a civilian career.
· UVIS – Utah Veteran Information System – is a 90,000-strong database of email addresses where we can connect with veterans and make them aware of job fairs, benefits, university events, state parks military appreciation days, etc.
· Pro Bono Legal Services – everything but family and criminal law.
· Procurement Technical Assistance Center, which helps veteran-owned businesses secure government contracts.
GH: Utah’s business community also creates a sense of belonging by proactively recruiting veterans. I’m talking about great companies like L3Harris, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman. And we have engaged partners in our public academic institutions, both university and technical, and in private institutions like Westminster, which has a really effective Veteran Student Support Center.
So at a high level, there are distinct advantages for veterans in Utah, including our outdoor lifestyle, an awesome healthcare system, transition resources for veterans, great educational and economic opportunities, and a state-supported communication system focused on veterans.
The veterans community talks and Utah has a great reputation.
For more information on all the programs, visit https://veterans.utah.gov/.