Fifteen veterans sat around a U-shaped table in an Irvine office building on a recent morning. Some had gray hair and paunches. Others had crew cuts, hard biceps and tattoos. Some were downcast. Others, cocky. Some had left the military only weeks ago.
They all had one thing in common. They needed a job.
For three hours, counselors and job coaches from the California Employment Development Department and other agencies peppered them with advice on how to craft a resume, what websites to visit, how to get free vocational training.
"I didn't know I was supposed to write a cover letter," said Giancarlo Andujo, 22, after the session.
Andujo, a former private from Laguna Hills, has applied for ten jobs in the month since he got out of the U.S. Army. "My mom signed me up for Craigslist," he said. "They email me stuff. But it's overwhelming."
Joblessness among post 9-11 veterans was 9.9 percent last year, compared to the nation's overall unemployment rate of 8.1 percent for 2012, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics.
That's the bad news.
The good news, however, is that for the nation's 2.1 million post 9/11 veterans, unemployment is falling fast. It dropped 2.2 percentage points from 2011 to 2012, while overall U.S. joblessness dipped only 0.8 percent in the same period.
"There's been a concerted effort to hire veterans, both by the government and by a host of major corporations," said J.P. Tremblay, deputy secretary of the California Department of Veterans Affairs. He noted that California gives preference points to veterans on civil service tests, the federal government has contracting set-asides for veterans and businesses are eligible for tax incentives to hire former soldiers.
Translating job skills
But Tremblay added, "Veterans face a challenge in translating their military experiences to civilian employment. If you sit down with a boss who doesn't understand military culture, and you say, 'I was a squad leader in Fallujah and I want to be manager in your department,' well, they don't know what a squad leader does."
Last year, California's overall unemployment was 10.5 percent, but the unemployment rate among post 9/11 veterans was 12.7 percent. That is well above the national level, but nonetheless represents a steep drop from 20 percent for recent veterans in 2011, reflecting the state's improving economy.
At the Irvine workshop, 27-year-old Matt Reimer listened to the speakers with an air of impatience. Was the advice helpful? "Maybe for some people," he said afterward.
A former Marine sergeant who served two tours in Iraq and later worked as a motorcycle mechanic, Reimer said he is looking for "something that pays well. You used to be able to walk into a shop and apply. Now they say apply on line, but its ridiculous. You are just a number."
Reimer suffered traumatic brain injury when he was hit twice by bombs and he still gets migraines once or twice a week. "Being a veteran makes it more difficult," he said. "Civilians don't think the way we do. They are intimidated by us. They know we work hard and can do what it takes to come out on top."
In Orange County and around the nation, government-funded one-stop employment centers are rolling out unprecedented services for former soldiers. The state's CalJOBS website gives veterans 24 hours to check out job listings before non-veterans get access.
If a former soldier drops by the county's one-stop centers in Irvine, Westminster, Santa Ana or Anaheim, he or she "goes immediately to the head of the line," said Lance Knight, the Irvine workshop leader. "Veterans have priority of service."
At the centers, 13 counselors and job specialists are solely dedicated to helping veterans. They provide one-on-one help to tailor resumes for specific positions and to instruct on using Linkedin and other websites for networking. They telephone employers to recommend clients.
While non-veterans frequently complain about under-staffed employment offices and unanswered telephones, veterans say their counselors are relentlessly attentive.
Shapour Meghdadi, an Aliso Viejo engineer who served in the Army in the 1990s, first sought help from the Irvine one-stop center without thinking to identify himself as a veteran. He was sent off to job-hunt with little guidance, he said, and "after seven months of on-line searches, workshops and job fairs, I was exhausted."
At 38, unable to afford housing, he had moved into his sister's condo. It was only after stopping by the center's veterans table that he was assigned a counselor who "helped me get my [discharge papers], taught me to target my resumes and gave me an action plan to send to employers."
"It was comforting," Meghdadi said. "He went beyond the call of duty."
Now Meghdadi works at Qualcomm, earning $18 an hour as an operations test technician.
Expanding vet benefits
Over the next five years, more than a million soldiers are expected to leave the military. Many, with the help of expanded G.I. Bill benefits, may attend school full time. The federal government pays 100 percent of a public four-year undergraduate education for post 9/11 veterans, along with generous housing stipends. In Orange County, a single veteran is entitled to $1731 a month; one with dependents, $2292.
Hundreds of thousands of former soldiers, however, are expected to enter a still-shaky job market.
The prospect has galvanized public officials. In August 2011 President Obama announced expanded tax credits for hiring former soldiers and challenged private companies to hire or train 100,000 veterans and military spouses by the end of 2013.
"Think about how many veterans have led their comrades on life-and-death missions by the time they were 25 years old," Obama told service members and business executives in a speech at the Washington Navy Yard. "That's the kind of responsibility and experience that any business in America should want to take advantage of."
In the past two years, scores of major companies have launched high-profile recruitment campaigns. "The 100,000 jobs mission," initially sponsored by JPMorgan Chase and 10 other corporations, has expanded to 101 companies who say they have hired 64,628 veterans.
"Hiring our Heroes," a U.S. Chamber of Commerce initiative, takes credit for the employment of 93,000 veterans and military spouses by 900 companies since March 2012. Last month, it launched a "Personal Branding Resume Engine" to help "translate your military service record into a strong resume."
Beginning Memorial Day, Wal-Mart has pledged to hire any honorably-discharged veteran who wants a job within a year of leaving active duty.
No independent body verifies corporate hiring claims, however, and it can be hard to put the numbers into context. Many companies don't distinguish between recently returning soldiers, and veterans from earlier eras, who have a lower than average unemployment rate.
The Walt Disney Company, Orange County's largest employer, announced last month that it has hired 1,300 veterans since it launched a "Heroes Work Here" program last year, and will hire 2,000 more over the next two years.
The company, which has a workforce of 166,000, including 25,000 in Orange County, was unable to say what proportion of its new hires the veterans represent or how much veteran hiring has changed from earlier years. "We do not release those types of employment numbers and prior to the Heroes Work Here initiative, were not specifically tracking the hiring of veterans," said spokeswoman Janice Sindoni.
Some experts are skeptical of corporate claims.
"I hear employers say we want to hire veterans," said Velvet Miscione, counselor for military programs at Coastline Community College. "It is the popular thing to say. But when push comes to shove, I don't see it happening. I've even seen cases where an employer gets wind that a veteran has PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), and they let him go."
According to the labor bureau, 28 percent of post 9/11 veterans reported having a service-connected disability in 2012, as compared with 14 percent of all veterans.
Last year, a survey by the Center for a New American Security, a Washington D.C. based think tank, found that some employers see veterans as "more rigid, less imaginative and less communicative than civilians" and "concerns about post-traumatic stress disorder in particular were a consistent theme."
Unique skill set
Many business owners, however, say they want to hire veterans not to polish a corporate image, but for the attributes they bring to the job.
"We get guys with radar and sonar experience," said Philip Stenson, an executive at Santa Ana's R.A. Industries, which manufactures oil drilling equipment. "They're disciplined, they show up on time and they take orders well."
Amity Anderson, a recruiter for Wells Fargo, hires veterans to be tellers and personal bankers at branch offices in Southern California. "Wells Fargo is all about team work, and veterans are very, very team-oriented," she said.
Former soldiers with security clearances are prized at Allied Barton, the giant security guard firm. "That qualifies them for secret locations, like Boeing," said Terry Brooks, the company's Orange County recruiter. "If they're armed, they make $18 an hour and up."
At Anaheim's New Horizons Computer Learning Center, a training company for information technology, "The philosophy is 'veterans first,'" said Cindy Sutherland, vice-president for career development. Eighteen of the franchise's 108 employees are veterans and she would like to hire more.
"They listen," she said. "They're not clock watchers. They understand the mentality of working until the job gets done."
But there's another reason too, she added. "We want to do the right thing as Americans."
Local job Centers:
Anaheim Workforce Services 2450 E. Lincoln Ave., Suite 200 (714) 518-2315 Anaheim Jobs 290 South Anaheim Bl. Suite 100, (714) 765-4350anaheimwib.com Irvine One-Stop Center 125 Technology Drive West, Suite 200, (949) 341-8000oconestop.com Westminster One-Stop Center 5405 Garden Grove Blvd., Suite 100, (714) 241-4900oconestop.com Santa Ana Work Center 1000 East Santa Ana Blvd., Suite 200, (714) 565-2600santaanaworkcenter.org Buena Park One-Stop Center 6281 Beach Blvd #302, (714) 562-9200ocwibpropathinc.comJob websites:
Cal.jobs.ca.gov: state government site has a veteran portal that allows job seekers to search openings, post resumes and find training—and helps employers to find candidates.usajobs.gov/veterans. federal government job openings and veterans guideheroesgethired.com. site has a downloadable guide to help vets interview for civilian jobsocjobfinder.com. Orange County Register Job Board lists openings by city.Source: California Employment Development Department