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Battling to get more veterans in the workforce

CHICAGO — It’s one of the most disheartening statistics in the job market’s slow recovery.

As the nation’s unemployment rate dipped below 8 percent in September, joblessness for post-Sept. 11 veterans was nearly 10 percent.

And younger female soldiers now in civilian life? Nearly 1 in 5 are unemployed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“There are a lot of companies that say they want veterans, but that conflicts with the unemployment numbers,” said Hakan Jackson, who was a biomedical equipment technician in the Air Force from 2000 to 2012. Jackson, 31, believes it’ll be easier to find a job after completing MBA studies at Boston University.

There is some good news for the 1 million veterans expected to leave the armed forces over the next four years: Corporate America is increasingly professing a desire to hire veterans, saying they value certain qualities that former soldiers bring to the workplace.

Earlier this year, Internet search giant Google Inc. named Harry Wingo — a Yale law school graduate who spent six years as a Navy SEAL — its veteran community programs manager to ramp up efforts to hire more former soldiers.

In October, Chicago-based Boeing Co. and three other industrial companies formed a coalition to train veterans in 10 states for advanced manufacturing positions that often go unfilled because job candidates lack the skills. Last year, New York-based JPMorgan Chase & Co. helped found the 100,000 Jobs Mission, which has a goal of hiring that many service members worldwide by 2020.

University of Chicago MBA student Bryson DeTrent, 29, who was in the National Guard for 12 years and has helped lead special operations in 16 countries, including Afghanistan, thinks there are four key reasons why vets, particularly women, haven’t found jobs:

  • It’s too easy to collect unemployment.
  • Many women are planning to start families or make up for time lost.
  • Many companies are nervous about hiring National Guard and reservists because the military could pull them from work.
  • Younger vets become dependent on the military’s structured environment and have difficulty adjusting to the civilian work environment.

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Erik Sewell, who is also studying for an MBA from the University of Chicago, said many military professionals often don’t market themselves effectively or convey adequately how transferable their skills, including vehicle maintenance and computer database management, are to the civilian world.

“Many make the mistake of thinking that since those duties were performed in a war zone or training for a war zone, they should just forget everything they did, and start over from scratch in the civilian world,” the West Point graduate said.

Sewell, a 7-footer who recently turned 28, said more companies need to follow in Home Depot’s steps. He said the retailer has an online translator that is part of its job application process. He said he typed in “field artillery officer” and up popped several examples of how that experience could be applied at Home Depot.

“It would be great to see more companies utilize tools like this, and more veterans taking the time to learn how to communicate their skills more effectively,” Sewell said.

Steve Calk, chief executive of Chicago-based Federal Savings Bank, said about 10 percent of the bank’s employees are veterans like himself. To help smooth the transition, Calk said, the bank assigns those hires with military mentors.

The biggest challenge many veterans face is that they don’t think they’re qualified for jobs that are posted by the bank, Calk said.

“They have a true desire to be trained and are more committed to success and better at working as a team,” said Calk, who is working with the city and Harold Washington College to develop a curriculum for returning veterans and other citizens to enter and become qualified for entry-level positions in banking.

For female veterans, the transition into the civilian workforce is even more difficult. For one thing, female veterans tend to not even identify themselves as veterans, said Amy Amizich, women veterans’ program coordinator for the state of Illinois. Some didn’t serve in combat or spent only a year or two in the service and don’t think they rate the title, Amizich said. Others, she added, simply want to distance themselves from traumatic experiences related to military service.

“That’s something we struggle with,” Amizich said. “That makes it very hard for us to provide them with resources and assistance.”

In Chicago, the Women’s Business Development Center is aiming to bring more female veterans into entrepreneurship, launching the Women Vetrepreneurship Program to provide training, business counseling, mentoring and small loans to female veterans. The length of the program, funded with a $50,000 grant from the McCormick Foundation, is still being decided.

With the number of homeless female veterans on the rise, program coordinators saw a need to target the demographic, said Georgia Marsh, chief development officer at the Women’s Business Development Center.

“There were no programs specifically targeted at women entrepreneurs,” Marsh said.

Participants sign up through the development center, where they receive standard business development services. But the veterans are placed into groups for regular meetings coordinated by the state Department of Veterans’ Affairs to provide information about veteran-specific programs, services and resources, including therapy and counseling, and registering their businesses with the state as veteran-owned.

Such a program sounds ideal for vets like Lorena Guerrero, 30. The former Marine said her dream since high school has been to open a clothing store or shoe boutique. “My biggest thing is sort of the fear of failure of starting your own business,” she said.

Guerrero was discharged in 2005 after a year in Okinawa, Japan, and three years in Pensacola, Fla. She moved to Chicago, got a job and began work on her bachelor’s degree in sales and marketing at DeVry University. Now an international business major, she plans to finish her MBA at Chicago’s Roosevelt University in April. “I have half a business plan completed,” she said.

Google’s Wingo told the 300 attendees at an MBA Veterans Network conference in Chicago that Google wants to hire more veterans because they’re considered both good leaders and good followers and are capable of dealing with ambiguity. Compared with civilians, many veterans are generally more responsible and unflappable, with a keen sense of focus.

“If there’s an obstacle, they’re going to find a way to route around it,” said Wingo, 46, the son and grandson of Army veterans.

Cheryl V. Jackson is a Chicago Tribune special correspondent

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