Veterans face unique challenges in job market
WARNER ROBINS -- When Bernard Robinson left the Army in 2006, he didn't worry much about finding a job.
"I thought it would be no problem getting a job," said Robinson, who lives in Warner Robins. "I thought I had a good resume, but obviously it wasn't good enough."
The veteran of two tours in Iraq is among many former troops struggling to find employment in the civilian world. Veterans often face unique challenges finding work when they leave the military, and the issue is the driving force behind a proposal for a veterans job training facility.
Gov. Nathan Deal put $10 million for such a center in his budget, which passed the House on Tuesday. It now goes to the Senate, which is to expected to vote within the next week.
If passed, the facility is expected to collaborate with higher learning institutions to help transition veterans to the private work force. Warner Robins City Council has offered a piece of land across from Robins Air Force Base, near Russell Parkway, for the center. But the location is not a done deal.
"It's not site specific the way it is in the budget," said Rep. Larry O'Neal, R-Bonaire, pointing out Columbus, Augusta and Savannah also have military installations. "It's still a competition for that."
But O'Neal said Warner Robins has the best central location, and he hopes the gateway center will become a model for the state, region and nation.
Unemployment among all veterans was 6.9 percent in February, slightly lower than the national unemployment rate of 7.7 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But more recent veterans seem to be having a tougher time. Unemployment among veterans of the post 9/11 era was 9.4 percent in February, compared to 7.6 percent a year ago.
Robinson's story mirrors many throughout the nation. He was a communications specialist who worked on computers, telephones and radios. His skills seemed easily transferable to the civilian world.
Since leaving the Army, he said, he has held "odds and ends jobs," mostly through a temp service.
Brandon Friedman, a former Army infantry officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, argued the veterans unemployment problem is exaggerated, though he added a training center is a good idea.
Friedman formerly worked as a public relations specialist for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and now works for a private public relations firm in Washington.
He said the high unemployment among post 9/11 veterans is mostly driven by those in the 18-24 age group. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2012 unemployment among that age group was 20.4 percent.
Young troops, he said, are frequently told their military experience will make them attractive to civilian employers, and they end up taking that for granted without getting the education and training they need to make the transition.
"You can't expect them to go from kicking in doors to being qualified for civilian jobs," he said. "They do need training."
Challenges for veterans
Steve Jennings, director of Veterans Services at the Georgia Department of Labor, agreed younger veterans are having a harder time. He said he "didn't have a clue" when he left the Army at 23 years old. But he said older veterans, ages 30 to 40, also lack proper job search skills.
"They've been in the military so long, they're not aware of these things," he said. "That's part of the challenge."
He attributed it to entering the military and skipping the time during which most Americans receive job training. "The military services are doing more these days to prepare folks," Jennings said. "But it's probably not where it needs to be."
Brian Zeringue, director of communications for state Veterans Services, said he personally has experienced the challenge of the post-military job search.
After 25 years in the Army, Zeringue retired in 1997 at the age of 43. He had a resume that included combat arms, a 14-month apprenticeship at The Dallas Morning News and public relations.
Still, it has taken him the better part of four years to begin earning the same standard of living he had in the Army.
"The fact that my advanced schooling is not a master's degree" was a setback, he said. "I didn't have anyone to blame but myself."
But Zeringue said lack of formal education is a problem for many military service members.
"Personally, those challenges that were there then are still there today," he said.
Some veterans said rules sometimes make it too difficult to use their military training in civilian life.
Jeremy Yon, an Army veteran who lives in Fort Valley, drove trucks in Iraq and Afghanistan. He dodged potholes and roadside bombs, so he figures he's well qualified to safely drive a truck on American highways.
But he said unless he gets a waiver, he would have to go through the same training as anyone without truck driving experience.
"I feel like if you have done it for so long, you should just be able to automatically get it," he said.
Yon served from 2005 until January, when he left the service to spend more time with his family. He isn't set on truck driving and has applied for numerous jobs without any luck, but he isn't too worried yet because his search is still early.
"I knew it was going to take a little bit of time," he said.
The state Legislature is considering a bill that would allow veterans to earn entry-level qualifications in certain trades, such as contracting and plumbing, based on their military experience. It's already been approved by the House and awaits confirmation in the Senate.
Class to help departing military
Departing members of the military are now required to participate in the Transition Assistance Program.
At Robins Air Force Base, the Airmen and Family Readiness Center gives the classes to those who are leaving the Air Force. It includes tips on writing resumes, searching for a job and how to dress for an interview.
Lisa Matney, team lead supervisor at the center, said the classes help transitioning veterans face their unique challenges.
For example, those who entered the service right after high school or college have never had to think about what to wear to work, so the classes teach "dress for success."
Also, some military careers translate to the civilian world better than others.
"If you are a bomb loader, that's not what you want to highlight on your resume," Matney said. "That person would have done more than loading bombs, so we try to find those things they can highlight on the resume that would be more attractive to a civilian employer."
Even military careers that would translate well to civilian life still typically require additional training. A security forces officer would be a good candidate for a law enforcement job, Matney said, but there are significant differences between military and civilian law enforcement.
Staff Sgt. Rodney Lee, who was taking the transition classes last week, plans to leave the Air Force in May. He is an education training manager and plans to work in that field in the aerospace industry.
He said he found the classes helpful and learned ways to find jobs online that he didn't know about.
There are now several websites that allow veterans to enter their military information and give suggestions for their new civilian work force choices. The Governor's Office manages operationworkforce.com.
Lee said one reason military members have trouble transitioning to a civilian job is they do not start planning early enough for life after the service.
More help available
The Macon office of the state Department of Labor has three people who specialize in helping veterans find jobs. Veterans who would like assistance can call the office at 751-6164.
The Houston County Career Center has two of its 19 staffers working exclusively with veterans, according to manager James Simpson. One other employee works with veterans part time.
As of the end of February, the center had 1,630 veterans registered for job search assistance, Simpson said.
"We might see in a week, something like 30 or 40," she said.
She said aside from translating their skills to the private work force, veterans also struggle with knowing what's available in the local market.
The nation's work force situation is also a factor, Jennings said.
"They're competing with our higher than normal unemployment rate, though it's gotten better," he said.
January to February, the unemployment rate among post 9/11 veterans has dropped more than 2 percentage points from 11.7 percent.
Jennings said the decrease over the past month could be part of the national trend of better employment and a focused effort on getting veterans hired. Besides his office, there are many new nonprofit organizations, such as Hiring Our Heroes, in addition to the traditional nongovernmental groups, such as Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Jennings said 60,000 to 80,000 troops are expected to return to Georgia over the next four years, and the department is constantly preparing to serve them.
"I don't mean that as in, 'Oh yeah, we're absolutely ready,'" Jennings said. "We're constantly evolving, and we're trying to build this system to handle that big wave when they do come back."