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Lloyd Muranaka of the 18th Maintenance Group shakes hands with Robyn Moore of the 18th Contracting Squadron on Thursday during a mock interview. Airmen from Kadena Air Base were participating in a four-day Transition Assistance Program workshop designed to help ease the move from the military to civilian life.

Lloyd Muranaka of the 18th Maintenance Group shakes hands with Robyn Moore of the 18th Contracting Squadron on Thursday during a mock interview. Airmen from Kadena Air Base were participating in a four-day Transition Assistance Program workshop designed to help ease the move from the military to civilian life. (Natasha Lee/Stars and Stripes)

Lloyd Muranaka of the 18th Maintenance Group shakes hands with Robyn Moore of the 18th Contracting Squadron on Thursday during a mock interview. Airmen from Kadena Air Base were participating in a four-day Transition Assistance Program workshop designed to help ease the move from the military to civilian life.

Lloyd Muranaka of the 18th Maintenance Group shakes hands with Robyn Moore of the 18th Contracting Squadron on Thursday during a mock interview. Airmen from Kadena Air Base were participating in a four-day Transition Assistance Program workshop designed to help ease the move from the military to civilian life. (Natasha Lee/Stars and Stripes)

Kadena airmen watch Master Sgt. Robyn Moore of the 18th Contracting Squadron, center, answer questions during a mock panel interview Thursday at the Transition Assistance Program workshop.

Kadena airmen watch Master Sgt. Robyn Moore of the 18th Contracting Squadron, center, answer questions during a mock panel interview Thursday at the Transition Assistance Program workshop. (Natasha Lee/Stars and Stripes)

Navy Seaman Morgan Taylor of the Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, personnel support activity works on a sailor’s transfer Thursday. Taylor is planning on getting out of the Navy at her four-year mark.

Navy Seaman Morgan Taylor of the Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, personnel support activity works on a sailor’s transfer Thursday. Taylor is planning on getting out of the Navy at her four-year mark. (David Carter/Stars and Stripes)

Petty Officer Third Class Gabriel Lechuga from 7th Fleet Band in Yokosuka says he joined the Navy for the Montgomery GI Bill but has done research recently that’s made him give more thought to staying in until retirement.

Petty Officer Third Class Gabriel Lechuga from 7th Fleet Band in Yokosuka says he joined the Navy for the Montgomery GI Bill but has done research recently that’s made him give more thought to staying in until retirement. (David Carter/Stars and Stripes)

TOKYO — Thousands of miles from homestead foreclosures, factory furloughs and companywide layoffs, a small group of sailors and airmen in northern Japan are learning to fight an increasingly common enemy — unemployment.

They’ve traded their camouflage for civilian attire to sit through a Department of Labor class at Misawa Air Base before leaving the military. During the seminar, they do the expected: write resumes, practice interviews and think about life after the military.

Yet, what these future job seekers rarely discuss is the failing economy, said instructor Renee McNulty, who has taught the preparation class at bases in Japan for the past three years.

"You would think they might bring it up more often," she said earlier this month.

As of March, 8.5 percent of those seeking a job in the United States — 13.2 million people — couldn’t find one, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That’s up from 8.1 percent in February and up from 6.9 percent a year ago, according to bureau data.

Overall jobless rates for veterans aren’t quite as bad, with 7.3 percent of vets who served since the first Gulf War out of work.

But among veterans 18 to 24, the rate almost doubles to 14.1 percent, according to a yearly summary by the bureau that focuses solely on veterans. Economists and military career advisors say that means a tough choice for younger military members, who may be worn out from multiple deployments and ready to start another life.

The recession also throws a kink into plans for career military people at the 20-year mark — veterans who often are looking to rely on their military pension to inflate a private-sector salary.

And mid-career troops, like noncommissioned officers, wonder if they have the skills or schooling needed to find jobs outside the service. They also worry whether openings exist in their chosen career field, according to Drew Brandt, a transition services manager for the Army in South Korea.

"Some of them are finding out that what they want to do is not as readily available," Brandt said. "They lean toward, ‘I’ve got a good deal going on now, so I might as well stay in.’ "

That’s exactly what Sgt. Nate Derusha, 30, of Thatcher, Ariz., did. Derusha, a bass player in the 8th U.S. Army Band at Yongsan Garrison in Seoul, recently re-enlisted, in part because of the poor economy.

"I get a regular, steady paycheck that isn’t affected by the economy," he said. "While a lot of people are scraping by, I’m able to save a little bit."

Economists say troops like Derusha may be in a stronger position to weather the recession than civilian workers. People in the military have a steady paycheck, free housing and the chance for a free education, according to Edward F. Stuart, a professor of economics at Northeastern Illinois University.

"But that depends on staying in," he said. "It’s always about choices."

Have a plan

Michael McInerney, 23, chose to leave the Air Force nine months ago. At first, he admited, it was a rough transition. He moved in with his parents in Illinois, relied on savings for necessities, and began a fruitless job search that offered little more than minimum-wage employment at the local Wal-Mart or Blockbuster, he said.

"I can remember in high school it was easy to get a job," McInerney said in a recent e-mail to Stars and Stripes. "Now, there are several hundred people applying for only a few positions. It can be very intimidating."

McInerney has a plan, however, and one that makes good sense, according to economists outside the military.

First, he’s about halfway through the hiring process to become a deputy with the DuPage County Sheriff’s Office, his main career goal. Meanwhile, he’s enrolled in an emergency medical technician program at the College of DuPage.

The class schedule makes it tough to pick up part-time work, so he’s living off another military benefit — tuition assistance. With federal and state veterans’ benefits, he said, he’s able to get about $1,500 a month to pay class and living costs.

"I just have to be very frugal," he said.

McInerney also said he thinks his service background may give him a boost in his application with the sheriff’s department.

Economist Daniel S. Hamermesh, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, agreed.

In general, Hamermesh said, employers like job applicants with military experience. It shows an employer the person can follow directions, meet deadlines and reliably show up for work on time.

Hamermesh also said that using the military’s benefits to earn a degree — while waiting out the bad times — is another smart move.

"Now is a great time to go back to school," Hamermesh said. "It doesn’t require you looking for a job in a difficult job climate."

And it’s a good time to take stock and save money, experts say.

Air Force Staff Sgt. Tiera Clark is 27, and she’s decided to leave the military this summer after 10 years. She made her decision based on her work shifts as a traffic management craftsman with the 18th Logistics Readiness Squadron at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, long before the economy soured.

With a 5-month-old son, the prospect of future deployments also convinced her and her husband to begin saving money and planning a new life. She expects to earn a master’s degree from Troy University in 2010.

Still, her friends question her family’s choice to leave the Air Force this summer, in this economy. Clark said it’s now or never.

"I think a lot of people would want to get out but they are afraid of change," she said.

‘Sitting pretty’

It’s a reasonable fear. About 70 percent of veterans work for private companies in a cross section of jobs that include retail, transportation, business services, manufacturing and construction, according to Labor Bureau statistics.

Unemployment rates in some of those same sectors have nearly doubled in the past 12 months, with jobless rates for transportation and utility workers even worse, the bureau reported this month.

And manufacturing, the job sector where 13 percent of veterans worked last year? The country has lost 1 million factory jobs in the past six months, according to the bureau.

"The only bright spot at all is health care," said Northeastern Illinois University’s Stuart. That industry added 13,500 jobs in March, he said, quoting bureau statistics.

Hamermest, of the University of Texas, was more optimistic.

"To say there are no jobs is wrong," he said. "It doesn’t mean it’s easy."

Still, he added, "I think a military person is sitting pretty."

Perhaps that’s because another benefit of the military can involve a servicemember’s knowledge of the government system — and how to get a job there. About 20 percent of veterans end up working at government jobs, according to the bureau.

That’s what Air Force Master Sgt. Jerry Laney is banking on.

At the 18th Wing at Kadena, Laney helps airmen plan their military careers. He aims to retire in three years and target civilian employment with the military, maybe as a counselor in human relations with the Airman Family and Readiness Center.

"I don’t think the economy will alter my decision," Laney said, though he acknowledged he has some jitters.

Laney left Dawson, Ga., at 18 to join the Air Force. Now, at 38, he knows he could stay longer and possibly make chief master sergeant, the Air Force’s highest enlisted rank. But he thinks it’s better to change into civvies while he is younger and before his job skills get stale.

At 21, Petty Officer 2nd Class Jeremy Saxe, of St. Louis, an intelligence sailor at Naval Air Facility Misawa, feels he has waited long enough for his next move after enlisting when he was 17. He plans to go to college using his military benefits, plus get a part-time job to help maintain the work discipline he’s lived with while in the Navy.

He’s getting a jump on his new life by attending the military’s interviewing and job-hunting classes.

"Yes, the economy is bad, but there are still jobs out there," he said. "I’m confident in my skills."

Stars and Stripes reporters T.D. Flack, Natasha Lee and Ashley Rowland contributed to this story.

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