Young war veterans struggle to find jobs

By MARK EMMONS | San Jose Mercury News | Published: April 27, 2013

SAN JOSE -- The simple, heartfelt expression of gratitude toward men and women in military uniform has been repeated countless times in recent years: Thank you for your service.

But when post-9/11 members of the military exchange their fatigues for business attire, that thanks doesn't always extend to being willing to hire them as civilians. Joblessness for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan remains stubbornly higher than the overall population.

That is despite an unprecedented effort -- including government tax credits and high-profile initiatives by companies such as Walmart -- to help veterans transition into civilian careers. And the problem could get worse as an estimated 1 million people leave

active duty over the next five years in what remains a tough job market.

Tyler Golightly, who was an Air Force captain who served in Iraq and has a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Southern California, has been looking for work without success since October 2011.

"Companies interview me, but they end up hiring somebody else," said Golightly, 31, who lives outside Modesto and recently attended a veterans job fair in San Jose. "They say they're looking for veterans, people with engineering degrees, people with experience. But here I am. I served my country. I don't have any complications. But I don't get anything in return."

With the unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans sitting at 9.2 percent -- well

above the nation's 7.6 percent rate -- he is not alone. About 207,000 recent veterans were without work in March, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The causes are varied and complex, veterans advocates say, including difficulty transferring military experience into the civilian workforce, poor coordination in efforts to assist veterans in finding jobs and the stigma associated with combat-related mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

However, the biggest problem is that new veterans and employers just do not speak the same language. Something is lost in translation.

"The vast majority of people in this country didn't serve," said Paul Rieckhoff, founder of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "Civilians just don't get what vets did in the military. It can seem like vets were beamed down from Mars."

For their part, veterans can do a poor job of explaining their talents and allow themselves to be typecast by employers who don't understand what something like "infantry squad leader" means on a résumé.

"That person might have led 12 men in Afghanistan," said Kevin Schmiegel, executive director of Hiring Our Heroes. "He built schools, negotiated with

tribal warlords, oversaw millions of dollars in equipment. The world should be his oyster. But we can't look at that title and think that the only job he's well-suited for is as a security guard.

"And if we do have that mentality, what does that say about our country?"

Sgt. 1st Class Alvin Prado, 38, also attended the San Jose fair and said he doesn't know what will await him when he soon retires from the Army after serving 20 years.

"I'm a little afraid of what's out there, to be honest," said Prado, who is stationed in Stockton and served three tours in Iraq. "I know how to lead soldiers. But now I will be dealing with civilians, and I don't know if I have the skills companies want."

Unemployment gradually has been dropping for veterans and nonveterans alike. And the 7.1 percent jobless rate for veterans, overall, is lower than their civilian counterparts. The problem is that younger veterans -- men and women likely to have served since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- are having a harder time finding work.

According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report for 2012, the unemployment rate for veterans ages 25 to 34 is 10.6 percent and a whopping 20.4 percent for the 18-to-24 age group. Those numbers were much higher than the civilian figures of 8.2 percent for those 25 to 34 and 15 percent for the 18-to-24 cohort.

Hiring experts say those veterans often go straight from high school to the military and then, after leaving the service, find

themselves back in their hometown -- the place they left seeking better opportunities. They also end up looking for their first job without knowing how to make "an elevator pitch" or put together a résumé that cuts through acronym-filled military-speak.

Ann Weeby, a veterans employment specialist with Goodwill of Silicon Valley, recalls seeing a friend's résumé that was three pages long and highlighted the missions he conducted and the number of insurgents he helped capture.

"He was very proud of that, but that's not what employers are looking for. ... The vets I work with need help in getting their résumé transformed into something employers can fully appreciate," said Weeby, 32, who served in Iraq.

Hiring Our Heroes, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce program, has staged 490 job fairs since March 2011, resulting in more than 18,400 veterans and military spouses finding work. Schmiegel, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel, said that while their goal is to introduce employers to the talent pool, veterans must close the deal.

"This isn't charity," he said. "We can help show veterans where the jobs are and how to broaden themselves. But once they have the tools, then it's up to them."

SAP, the global business software company that maintains a strong Silicon Valley presence, was the title sponsor of the San Jose job fair. James McKinstry, who manned the firm's booth, said veterans often don't have specific IT skills required in high tech. However, SAP is willing to teach those in exchange for the intangibles that veterans offer.

"I know it's a big challenge turning what they did in the military into a civilian profession," said McKinstry, who served in the Army for eight years. "But when you're a team player, a go-getter, a problem-solver, who doesn't want that?"

A study conducted by Prudential and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, though, found that 24 percent of veterans felt companies avoid hiring them in part because they have "too much baggage." Those results are similar to a Society for Human Resource Management survey last year where about one in three HR professionals cited PTSD or other mental health issues as hiring "challenges."

Samantha White, 35, a Navy veteran from San Ramon, said the damaged-veteran image has hindered her attempts to find work.

"In my experience, I think companies are very hesitant about hiring veterans," said White, who is attending the University of Phoenix after not finding work. "Maybe there is a stigma about coming out of the military with problems."

Personal stories like that frustrate Gwen Ford, head of the San Jose nonprofit Project Hired, which helps the disabled find employment, including veterans.

"Employers just automatically assume that a veteran has PTSD and that it will affect their workplace in a detrimental way," she said. "When I hear that, I usually mention that they're probably sitting next to someone right now with PTSD, and that person never was in the military."

Golightly remains intent on clearing whatever hurdles exist. He has been living on savings and refuses to file for unemployment.

"I just want to work," he said.


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