AUGUSTA, Ga. — For former Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Brewer, finding a job has been a battle of its own.
After three overseas deployments and seven years in the Army, Brewer was released from active duty in May after injuring his elbow and losing control of his hand. Brewer had been applying for jobs since January to no avail. Instead of collecting unemployment benefits, he opted to continue his college education and work on earning his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, which he’ll finish in April.
“The job market is a lot tougher than I thought in the Augusta area,” he said. “Pretty much outside of Fort Gordon, there’s not much employment that pays more than $10 or $11 an hour.”
For the father of four young children under the age of 6, those wages just aren’t enough.
“It’s a constant battle when you keep applying for jobs, and you don’t get calls,” Brewer said. “A lot of us (veterans) are motivated to be successful in the civilian market. We just the need the opportunity.”
After a 12-week stint working for the local United Way chapter, Brewer found temporary refuge from unemployment in November with the Veterans Curation Program, a four-month curriculum designed to give veterans and wounded military personnel an interim paycheck and mainstream job skills. At the Martinez lab, Brewer and five other veterans sift through and document American Indian artifacts found in excavated soil from Alabama.
He considers himself one of the lucky ones.
The latest unemployment figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor show that the percentage of total jobless veterans decreased in December to 5.5 percent from 7 percent in 2012.
Though that number has dropped below the national unemployment rate of 6.7 percent, the number of veterans who served from Sept. 2001 onward and are currently looking for work is still higher, at 7.3 percent. The unemployment rate for post 9/11 veterans, however, has steadily declined in previous years, falling from 11.5 percent in 2010, 12.1 percent in 2011 and 9.9 percent in 2012.
“It’s getting better,” said Nate Smith, executive director of Altanta-based Hire Heroes, which helps create job opportunities for veterans and their spouses. “I think it’s getting better for a number of reasons, part of which is certainly because the economy is getting better.”
THE NONPROFIT ORGANIZATION, formed in 2007 and now with a national presence, helps, on average, between 15 and 25 veterans find a job each week, said Smith, himself a veteran, who transitioned from the Marine Corps into the national job market in 2010. Hire Heroes also connects veterans with hiring companies and assists them with job-placement skills such as résumé writing and interviews.
While the overall job picture seems to be improving for veterans, Smith said recent veterans are still finding difficulties moving into the workforce. He attributed that partly to the high number of Vietnam War-era veterans retiring from the corporate world. Smith said that those veterans are most likely to relate to their younger counterparts and understand their skill sets.
“It’s just harder to transition out of the military now into a culture where people don’t really understand what you’ve done, particularly if you’ve gone overseas,” he said. “You have many fewer people just in the business culture that understand the military culture.”
Kim Elle, executive director of the Augusta Warrior Project, which also aids in veteran employment, said it’s crucial to make sure veterans and transitioning soldiers are prepared for post-service employment, by providing network opportunities and fine-tuning resumes to better reflect the current needs of the civilian workforce.
The key, she said, is doing so several months before they’re discharged.
“If we could help people 6 to 12 months prior get exposed to opportunities out in the community ... we’re going to see a huge decrease in the unemployment rate,’ said Elle, also an Air Force reservist.
Brewer and Smith agreed that earlier job preparation would likely help ease the unemployment situation for veterans.
Smith also said recent efforts by a growing number of national companies, such Wal-Mart and Starbucks, to hire former military personnel is another reason the job forecast for veterans looks more promising.
Starbucks executives pledged last November to hire at least 10,000 veterans and military spouses within the next five years, and Wal-Mart announced in May its Welcome Home Commitment, promising to hire any honorably discharged veteran within 12 months of active duty. The discount retail giant predicted it would hire 100,000 veterans in a five-year span.
At the new Wal-Mart Supercenter opening March 26 on Wrightsboro Road, store manager Rodney Baker said he’s already hired 20 veterans as assistant managers, hourly supervisors and part-time associates.
A Wal-Mart spokeswoman said the company has hired more than 30,000 veterans, 1,000 of those in Georgia, since Memorial Day.
“They seem to come very prepared for the interview,” Baker said of the veterans he hired. “They usually are dressed impeccably, well-mannered and well-spoken.”