Many Young Veterans Face Long Wait For Jobs

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Iraq and Afghanistan veterans returning to civilian life are finding jobs as elusive as Osama bin Laden.
by Phillip O’Connor

Left: Anthony Miller, 23, sets out to find a job Thursday during a career fair held for veterans.

Count Christy Gearon among the lucky young veterans who seek to enter the labor force. After four years in the Army, including a year in Iraq, Gearon, 23, went to work as a sales coordinator for a printing company almost as soon as she was discharged. Other young veterans returning to civilian life are finding jobs as elusive as Osama bin Laden.

Last year, the unemployment rate for veterans 20 to 24 years old was 15.6 percent, nearly twice that of nonveterans in the same age group and more than three times the national rate, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

Experts aren’t certain why younger vets face a tough time entering the work world. Overall, veterans historically have had higher employment rates than nonveterans.

Labor Department officials said many are first-time job seekers up against workers who already may have a few years experience.

In other cases, service members return to find they no longer have a job, even though the law might require they be rehired…

     

“If we identify a violation, we go after it and get it corrected,” said Mick Jones of Missouri’s Veterans’ Employment Training Service.

Often, returning veterans aren’t eager to jump right into the work world or to start school. Many apply for unemployment benefits to tide them over.

“Some service members will take a well-deserved break after their military service,” said Charles Ciccolella, assistant U.S. secretary of labor for veterans’ employment and training. “And when they begin looking for a job, they are entitled to unemployment compensation, which is a big help to them while they are trying to land the right job.”

A June survey of about 150 veterans by Careerbuilder.com, an online employment Web site, found that nearly one in five said it took them six months or longer to find a job after returning home. One in 10 reported it took them more than a year.

Veterans in the survey blamed a lack of jobs near their homes, employers who didn’t understand how their military skills translated to the civilian world and the lack of a college degree.

Anthony Miller, 23, left the Marine Corps and moved back to Arnold. He hasn’t applied for unemployment. Instead, he lives off the proceeds from a home he sold near Camp LeJeune, N.C.

“I kind of took a little time off,” said Miller, who spent six months in Iraq.

He said he hoped to use the skills he learned as a military communications technician but wasn’t finding openings in the St. Louis area. Miller, who earned $24,000 a year as a Marine, said civilian jobs in his field can pay from $36,000 to $85,000 and that the hottest markets are in Arizona and West Virginia.

“I’d really like to stay here,” Miller said. “I may have to take a decrease in pay.”

States offer help

In Illinois, many veterans who approach the state for assistance want to go to college, said Lane Knox, Illinois’ veterans program coordinator. Many joined the military right out of high school and may lack the skills needed to find meaningful employment, she said.

Illinois offers career counseling, interview preparation and employer outreach, said Mica Matsoff, spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Employment Security. Employment offices across the state are staffed with veterans who work closely with former service members to help them land a job.

The programs helped place 30,000 Illinois veterans in jobs last year, more than 60 percent of those who sought the state’s help, Matsoff said.

Similar programs are offered in Missouri, where the number of veterans seeking unemployment benefits has steadily risen for at least three years, according to the state Department of Labor.

Gearon found her job at the printing company through a placement agency.

“I’m happy with it,” said Gearon, who grew up in St. Louis and now lives in south St. Louis County. “But it’s never bad to look for better opportunities.”

Undiagnosed trouble

Some people who work closely with young veterans, especially veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said more serious problems may prevent those veterans from earning a steady paycheck.

Pat Kerr of the Missouri Veterans Commission said she has encountered several veterans who suffered from undiagnosed physical injuries that made it difficult for them to work. That included five people she was able to get admitted for in-patient treatment for minor traumatic brain injuries from the constant pounding, concussions and loud noises they were exposed to overseas, she said. Such injuries make it difficult to concentrate and work.

Cerebia Epps, who retired from the Army in 1998 after 20 years, said the military needs to do a better job advising those returning to civilian life of the services available, including treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Epps now works for Employment Connection, a nonprofit St. Louis job placement agency that works with veterans.

She encouraged combat veterans to register at a VA hospital as soon as they get home, whether they think they need to or not. That will make it easier to seek treatment later, she said.

On Thursday, more than 400 veterans turned out in the first hour of a career fair held at Harrah’s Casino in Maryland Heights. It was one of a dozen such fairs the federal Labor Department helped organize across the country to link up veterans with employers.

Capt. Tammy Spicer, a Missouri National Guard spokeswoman, said many service members leave with skills that easily transfer to the civilian world. But even those trained in infantry or artillery often come better prepared than many other job seekers.

“If you talk to employers, half the battle is getting a dependable employee,” Spicer said. “Someone in the military knows how to show up, how to show up on time, how to be accountable for their time . . . and they expect to work a full day.”

They also know how to follow orders.

“How many bosses tell somebody to do something and they get a ‘why?'” In the military, we don’t do that,” Spicer said.


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