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Behind NBCUniversal’s Call to Arms to Hire Veterans

"Getting people to understand they are one of the best-trained workforces in the world is a huge challenge," says NBCU vice chairman and former Marine Ron Meyer about the industry-wide effort (Disney and Sony are also making strides) to help military vets transition back into civilian life.

In 1962, Ron Meyer, then 17, enlisted in the Marines after dropping out of school two years earlier. At 19, he re-entered civilian life and was hired as an agent at the now-defunct Paul Kohner Agency on his way to becoming one of Hollywood’s top power brokers. It’s a path that today would never be available to a young veteran who didn’t finish high school.

Up to 200,000 veterans now are returning home each year, most from Iraq and Afghanistan. Compared to previous generations (thanks to the end of the draft in 1973), they’re more likely to come from poor, uneducated backgrounds, and they face greater challenges integrating back into civilian life and employment. Many are dealing with PTSD-related mental health issues that overburdened VA hospitals struggle to address, especially with funding constantly under threat. The consequences are dire: Veterans are much more likely to commit suicide than civilians — 20 take their own lives every day, accounting for 18 percent of all suicides in America, though vets make up only 9 percent of the U.S. population.

NBCUniversal vice chair Ron Meyer, then 17, with his mother, Edith, in 1962, shortly after he completed Marine boot camp.

Support for service members and their families is a cause long championed by first lady Michelle Obama and second lady Jill Biden; veterans’ issues also have roiled the presidential campaign, with both candidates claiming to represent their best interests. But far from Washington, D.C., NBCUniversal vice chairman Meyer, based on the Universal lot, is helping to shepherd a far-reaching commitment within NBCU to hire veterans and reservists, much as Disney, the industry leader in this arena, has done. Says Meyer, 71, “Getting people to understand they are one of the best-trained workforces in the world is a huge challenge.”

While Universal always has made efforts to hire veterans, it was parent company Comcast — founder Ralph Roberts was a Navy man in World War II — that issued a massive call to arms after buying NBCU in 2011.

Universal Pictures senior director of strategy and business development Ryan Clinton, a former Army infantry officer and West Point graduate who did three tours of duty in Iraq — he was shot during a firefight in Ramadi in 2007 — is among the 3,600 vets hired across the NBCU/Comcast empire between 2012 and 2014 in partnership with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Hiring Our Heroes program. And in May 2015, the conglomerate announced its intention to bring aboard an additional 10,000 veterans, reservists, National Guard members, and military spouses and domestic partners by the end of 2017.

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Clinton, 33, and 10 other veterans at NBCU who gathered for a photograph for THR exemplify the diverse talents, ambitions and experiences of service members. Janet Mays, also 33, works in human resources on the cable side and is in the Army Reserve. NBCU has changed its military leave policy so that she and others like her get paid for 15 days annually during their deployment. For her most recent assignment, she shipped to Japan for two weeks to participate in a bilateral military exercise. Jason Taylor, 41, is a senior manager of technical operations at Fandango who retired after 17 years in the Air Force, where he procured satellites and other space systems. Carl Critchlow, 65, spent more than a quarter-century in the Air Force before entering the private sector and working in IT as an infrastructure solutions architect. And Jeff Fleeher, CFO of worldwide home entertainment at Universal Pictures, was in the Army for seven years, piloting Apache helicopters and serving as part of the peacekeeping mission in Serbia following the war in Bosnia. (Fleeher, 44, an adrenaline junkie who’s been known to hit the waves with world-famous surfer Laird Hamilton, was instrumental in bringing Clinton to the film studio after Clinton, then in a training program at Comcast, reached out because of their military connection.)

Members of the Univets club in the 1940s saluted the studio’s veterans tribute wall, which was featured as the centerpiece of Hill Valley’s courthouse square in 1985’s Back to the Future.

Clinton and Mays are representative of an entire generation of soldiers currently or soon making the transition to civilian life. The unemployment rate for veterans leaving the military since 2001 is 5.8 percent, compared to 4.9 percent for the general population, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Says Critchlow, “Veterans are a tremendously valuable resource if mined, but people don’t know enough, or are afraid of us or concerned that there is no match or think, ‘What can shooting at somebody over a berm have to do with helping to make movies?’ “

Fleeher makes the connection: “I think the core values of our company are not that different from the military. It’s hard work, teamwork, leadership and then dealing with ambiguity. Every day in the military you have to deal with ambiguity. And as the entertainment industry is changing in front of our eyes, I think that that is a core skill set — you can’t survive in the military if you can’t do that, and I think that’s a great analogy for Hollywood.”

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The bond among the vets at NBCU is palpable. Comcast has created an infrastructure for veterans that includes companywide hiring fairs and the Veteran’s Network, or VetNet — Meyer is its executive champion — which has more than 5,000 members and offers a mentoring program and events focused on supporting the professional and personal development of veterans.

In recent years, there’s been growth at many studios when it comes to support and hiring of veterans. Disney — which, like Universal, has the benefit of owning theme parks that employ thousands nationwide — has hired more than 7,000 vets since launching its Heroes Work Here project in 2012 and hosts a daylong Veterans Institute program designed to help companies nationwide build effective veteran-hiring programs. Sony has had a Hiring Our Heroes fair on the lot and has hosted a two-day workshop where industry execs helped dozens of vets learn how to find work as production assistants. 21st Century Fox has worked with American Corporate Partners, a nonprofit that helps military personnel transition to civilian work, on a yearlong mentorship program that pairs veterans with executives across numerous disciplines — including executive chairman Rupert Murdoch. The company also provides veterans access to its online career site.

On Nov. 20, many of Mays’ fellow vets, including Fleeher and Taylor, will celebrate her taking command of a ground ambulance unit in Riverside, Calif. Says Mays, “I never feel like I have to choose between my military career and my civilian career.”

This story first appeared in the Aug. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.