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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Three years ago Gabe Collins was on the front line in Kandahar province, one of the most dangerous places in war-ravaged Afghanistan, conducting search and rescue missions with the U.S. Navy.
These days the 25-year-old, who also served in the Iraq war, is an aircraft engine mechanic at global aerospace firm AAR's plant in Hot Springs, Arkansas. He is applying skills honed while working on helicopters during his eight years of service in the Navy.
Just over a 1,000 miles away in Miami, 37 year-old Ruben Henao, also a veteran of the Iraq war, inspects aircraft landing gear at another AAR plant.
Henao was mostly a supply specialist and infantry man in the U.S. Army. But he learned to fix Humvees and tanks in the field, valuable mechanical experience for his duties today as the last person to sign off on the aircraft landing gear that has been disassembled, repaired and rebuilt.
The two men are among hundreds of military veterans who have been tapped by manufacturing companies that are facing a critical shortage of skilled workers.
According to a joint study by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute, manufacturing companies have roughly 600,000 vacancies they are struggling to fill. It illustrates a growing skills mismatch, with not enough of the 13.1 million unemployed Americans equipped for the available jobs.
From skilled trades to internet technology and engineering there is a dearth of qualified people as the country continues to churn out fewer math and science graduates.
According to the latest available government data, the share of math, engineering, technology and computer science students dropped to about 9.9 percent in 2009 from 11.1 percent in 1980.
An aging population of skilled workers is adding to the problem. As the Baby Boomers retire, there are fewer skilled workers available to replace them.
Companies are only too glad they can turn to the growing pool of military veterans, admired for their "can do" attitudes.
"One of the reasons for employing veterans is that the skills set we are looking for, the values and work ethic are perfectly aligned with the military," said David Storch, chief executive officer at AAR.
"Veterans are very disciplined, very focused, in addition to the technical skills that the army trains for," he told Reuters.
AAR provides inspections, line maintenance, aircraft modifications and upgrades to the world's major regional and cargo airline fleets. It also serves the U.S. military and government agencies.
Last year the firm employed 314 veterans, who accounted for 18 percent of AAR's total workforce of about 7,000.
Yet there are not enough qualified veterans to plug the technology and engineering skills gap confronting the U.S. labor market. AAR still has about 600 positions it cannot fill.
Analysts say the skills mismatch is holding back the economy's growth potential and keeping the unemployment rate stubbornly high.
"Unfortunately many of the unemployed are too old to be retrained. It's already hurting the potential economic growth rate," said Sung Won Sohn, an economics professor at California State University Channel Islands in Camarillo, California.
"Growth needs labor and capital, and we just don't have enough bodies in the right place."
A similar story is told at Advanced Technology Services, a manufacturing consulting services company that counts Caterpillar and Motorola among its clients.
The company has gone a step further by hiring a former U.S. Army captain to spearhead its military recruitment drive. Its hiring need at any given time can be as many as 200.
Holly Mosack, the former captain, spent 7-1/2 years in the Army. A veteran of the Iraq war, she knows what it takes to find a job.
"I did not have a corporate, human resources or recruitment background. All I had was my passion," she told Reuters.
Last year, ATS hired between 200 and 250 veterans, and it is looking to increase the number this year. Close to 30 percent of the company's 3,000 employees are military veterans.
"When you look at manufacturing and skilled trades, people are not going into them anymore. There is a misperception of manufacturing, that jobs are going away and that factories are outdated," said Mosack.
But manufacturing is making a small comeback in some sectors. Although it accounts for only about 12 percent of gross domestic product, it has been the main driver of the recovery from the 2007-09 recession. The factory sector added 225,000 jobs last year, marking the first year of sustained job gains since 1997.
Like AAR, ATS is targeting veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars because of their ability to adapt to difficult environments and often work with limited supplies.
"They have not had a supplier down the street to mail them a part. They have had to make do with what they had. So they bring a great sense of 'can-do' attitude with them, a great sense of teamwork and a disciplined approach," said Mosack.
"That is something that is very hard to train people to have and the military does a wonderful job of instilling that every day in all their service members."
The majority of veterans hired by ATS are maintenance technicians. They are recruited from military bases and job fairs and in conjunction with the Department of Veterans Affairs, among others.
"We provide technical training to help them understand, 'You did this electrical work in the military and here is a piece of manufacturing equipment, here is what we call it and here is how it is a little different,'" said Mosack.
Other companies seeking out military veterans include Siemens Corporation, which plans this year to hire 300 former service people to fill positions ranging from field engineers to service technicians and sales and marketing specialists.
"This reflects the fact that the technical training and advanced skills sets that veterans bring to the workforce are a perfect match for Siemens," said Mike Panigel, senior vice president of human resources for Siemens, which hired 630 veterans last year.
Veterans are also being wooed by finance, software, communications and security companies.
Veterans are hardly jumping the queue in a tough labor market where three of four unemployed Americans cannot find work. Unemployment among post 9/11 military veterans was at 13.1 percent in December, far higher than the 8.5 percent rate for the civilian population. About a quarter of a million service men and women were out of work in December.
The problem is more acute among veterans in the 18 to 24 age group, where the unemployment rate is 31 percent. A total of 857,000 veterans of all wars were unemployed in December.
Joblessness among former service men and women is set to worsen as the war in Afghanistan winds down. More than one million service members are projected to leave the military by 2016. The Obama administration and Congress have pushed forward an array of measures, including tax credits for companies employing veterans of the two wars.
But not many firms are biting. Some says veterans' reserve commitments and battlefield stress-related issues make them less-dependable workers.
"Some people are actually leery of hiring veterans because of their reserve commitments, because they are considered not working during those times," said Michael McNelis, a director at The Training Camp, which provides vendor certification for the IT sector.
The Training Camp has a program dedicated to helping returning veterans get jobs in the IT sector.
"We have been going out to the companies that we do business with and telling them that when you hire a veteran and if you need to train them, we will offer low-cost and discounted training for these individuals," McNelis said.
"We have dealt with 400 veterans and only about 100 of them have found a job. Companies seem to just pass over this large pool of individuals. If we can't give a job to someone who is willing to give their life for country, shame on us."
Companies like AAR, which currently employs 14 active duty service members, overlook the problems of absenteeism because of reserve duty and mental health issues.
Henao, the former infantryman who was part of an Army task force in Tikrit, says the transition has been difficult.
"I am still in transition pretty much because in my division we lost 91 soldiers and I lost a couple of friends in Iraq. I am still in therapy and all that stuff and AAR supports me," he said.
At AST, newly hired veterans are teamed up with already established former service people to help with assimilation to a new culture and to work through issues they encounter.
For AAR's Collins, working on aircraft engines is more than just a job. He joined the Navy straight out of high school and left in last August after a career that included tours of duty in Afghanistan and Bahrain and two deployments to Iraq.
In six months, Collins will receive his Federal Aviation Administration mechanic's certificate. That will allow him to perform maintenance and inspections on aircraft and engines under FAA regulations.
The on-the-job training has provided what high school and the military did not. "I decided to get out of the Navy to further my education," said Collins.
Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Dan Grebler