Returning veterans fighting to find work
The Kansas City Star
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Signing one of the few acts of Congress last year that sparked no arguments, President Barack Obama called on U.S. businesses to “hire a veteran right away.”
Nothing in this economy happens right away.
Jobless numbers of military veterans serving in the post-9/11 era have dipped in the past year — to just below 10 percent, compared to 11.7 percent in September 2011.
Those rates continue to be higher than what non-veterans face, even with politicians of all stripes voicing strong support for veteran re-entry programs.
With foreign wars drawing down, “in the next five years, 1 million service members … will be transitioning from active duty to civilian life,” said John K. Moran, a U.S. Department of Labor administrator, to a U.S. House panel last month. “We owe them the best services and benefits our nation can provide.”
That message may finally be resonating beyond the halls of government and into corporate boardrooms. Despite the challenges that have long hampered veterans marching back into the private sector, some experts think that tomorrow’s returning warriors will be better positioned to land good work than are today’s liberal arts majors.
“We’re moving the conversation away from five years ago — when it was, ‘We all have an obligation to hire these veterans’ — to, ‘We ought to go after them,’?” said Michael Haynie of the nonpartisan Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University.
“They’re entrepreneurial. They bring global experience to the workplace,” he said. “They’re adept at working in teams, they’re comfortable with diverse sets of people — all those things come to bear on businesses.”
In the Kansas City area, high-paying employers such as Cerner Corp., Black & Veatch and Burns & McDonnell have intensified efforts to recruit veterans with technical talents — and the companies say it’s not because of federal or state incentives to hire them.
“With this wave of veterans coming out … we see it as an opportunity” to tap high-tech skills that U.S. colleges aren’t delivering fast enough, said Troy Teague, Cerner’s manager of recruiting and talent development.
Still, the transition for many veterans promises to be tough, as evidenced by employers’ lukewarm reception to the 2011 VOW to Hire Heroes Act, signed by Obama last November.
A Labor Department official said it is too early to assess the results of the initiative, which offered worker tax credits and training opportunities for certain groups of veterans. But human resource directors and workforce analysts cite no rush on the part of business owners to take advantage of the tax incentives, which are slated to expire in December.
“It’s another one of those puff pieces you tend to see come out of government: A great idea, but there’s not a lot of meat to it,” said Ken Manley, a recruiter at Rockwell Collins, an aerospace and defense contractor headquartered in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
“We’re a $5 billion business. So a tax credit of a few thousand dollars (for hiring a veteran) is a pittance,” said Manley. “It would matter a lot more for mom-and-pop operations. But they don’t have the human resource departments to even make them aware of tax credits.”
The VOW to Hire Heroes Act allows employers to receive tax credits up to $2,400 for hiring veterans unemployed for more than a month (but less than six months). The incentives climb for hiring a veteran out of work for more than six months, and they reach as high as $9,600 for businesses that hire veterans with service-related disabilities.
Of course, the incentives come bundled in the usual red tape.
Employers must complete Internal Revenue Service Form 8850 to certify that new hires meet eligibility requirements. If so — and should a worker remain employed for a specified time — a general business credit may be claimed on Form 3800 by for-profit businesses.
Not-for-profits? See Form 5884-C.
“The IRS is not necessarily taxpayer-friendly on these things,” said accounting professor Allen Ford at the University of Kansas’ School of Business. “A lot of smaller employers wind up saying ‘I’ll hire you and to heck with credits.’?”
Not that the intent of such programs isn’t good, Ford said. All things being equal between two applicants, “I think a tax break for one would make a difference,” and he encouraged veterans who know they qualify to bring it up with job interviewers.
Potential employers would be impressed, he said, because so few are aware.
A difficult transition
Veterans’ struggles finding work depend a lot on their age and the era in which they served.
A White House report issued in May found that the 2011 unemployment rate of 8.3 percent for all veterans was a bit below the jobless rate of Americans who never served — “a testament to the skills, determination and discipline of veterans.” (Obama referred to this data last week in the presidential debate with Republican rival Mitt Romney.)
The same report, however, noted abysmal success rates for so-called “Gulf II veterans” serving after the 9-11 attacks.
Among the youngest veterans, ages 18 to 24, the 2011 unemployment rate in civilian life averages 30.2 percent — almost twice as high as rates of joblessness for their peers who never donned a uniform.
The reasons vary.
Many veterans lack post-secondary degrees and never acquired the computers skills or technical training 21st century employers seek.
Some stay out of the labor force to chill for a while, making up lost time with family and friends.
Veterans suspect employers’ misunderstandings of post-traumatic stress disorder keep them from hiring — to the point that veterans commonly leave their combat experience off job applications.
Compounding the job problems are veterans’ own refusals and reluctance to take advantage of the plethora of educational benefits, retraining opportunities and career-placement programs that government and non-profit organizations offer.
“They serve. They don’t expect to be served,” said a Kansas City veteran, Valerie Brown, at a University of Missouri-Kansas City seminar this summer. The two-day event, supported by a National Science Foundation grant, brought together job recruiters and veterans taking math and science courses.
Older veterans often have the work experience and networking skills to make smart use of government programs in hard times.
Roger Allen, 51, learned of educational opportunities tucked into the VOW to Hire Heroes Act when he asked a friend at the U.S. Forest Service about job openings.
Allen was discharged from the Army in 1985 after serving five years. He was trained in the early development of GPS systems but never came close to a war zone.
“I lived all these years since then without thinking about my veterans benefits,” he said.
Allen worked in satellite communications at Sprint and other companies until the dot-com bubble burst. He tried real estate development until the housing bubble popped.
This year he enrolled full time at Clark College in Washington state under the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program established by the 2011 law. VRAP extends educational benefits for up to 12 months for veterans age 35 to 60, enabling Allen to pursue an associate degree in network management.
“I love to see when we’re doing something for vets,” he said. “If it’s not a program that suits me, fine. If it helps other vets, great.”
At the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Jack Lovell, 39, has enrolled in a master’s degree program offered by the Army in partnership with the KU School of Business.
The curriculum teaches supply-chain management — providing a private-sector view of production-to-consumption principles that the military drilled into Lovell.
He served twice in Afghanistan, once in Iraq. He supplied moving troops with food, fuel and other materials.
“The Army’s bottom line is different. We’re supplying troops,” Lovell said. But the visiting KU professors and corporate-world lecturers “are speaking the language of business. It’s dollars and cents.
“We’re getting it. I’m confident I’ll be marketable in a few years.”
The hire-a-vet movement
Under a Missouri initiative called Show Me Heroes, launched in 2010 by Gov. Jay Nixon, some 2,500 companies have publically pledged to hire veterans.
But fewer than 2,000 veterans have actually landed jobs, according to state estimates. A toll-free number on the Show Me Heroes website, under the heading “Connect with Us,” was inoperable last week.
There is no shortage of good intentions, as many of the country’s biggest companies pile on the hire-a-vet bandwagon.
This month, a coalition headed by General Electric, Boeing and Alcoa announced a collaborative effort, “Get Skills to Work,” to provide support and training to veterans pursuing careers in manufacturing.
Home Depot is among mega-employers whose websites allow veterans to type in their military skills, often defined by acronyms and codes. The software will translate the information into applicable civilian jobs.
Kansas City-based Cerner is developing such a “translator” for its website: What’s known to the Army as 25B training, for example, could provide a candidate with information-technology skills valuable to Cerner, a healthcare electronic record-keeping company.
Cerner’s Teague noted “our industry is in constant change,” and veterans coming out of high-stress environments may be better able than others to adapt to changing conditions.
At Cerner and other growing firms, the only thing preventing veterans from landing meaningful careers is a four-year college degree or proper certificate for civilian jobs.
With college credentials, returning veterans could outpace homegrown graduates in the quest for quality jobs, many corporate recruiters predict.
If the economy is willing, that is. And so long as those veterans come home in good health
“The government’s been throwing out this figure of a million more transitioning to civilian life,” said Rockwell Collins’ Manley. “And, oh yeah, at least 40 percent of those people will be on disability of some sort.
“What’s going to happen when you add them in?”