U.S. Army Private Brandon Click was driving a 68-ton Abrams tank in Iraq on March 25, 2008, when a roadside bomb melted his eyelashes and peppered the left side of his body with shrapnel.
Now back home in the Cincinnati suburbs, the 26-year-old Army veteran says he’s been delivering Papa John’s pizza at night in his 2002 Pontiac Sunfire for a little more than $31,000 a year to help support his infant son while he searches for a job.
“It gets the bills paid, but barely,” said Click, who crossed the Ohio River to Kentucky last week for a job fair intended to help returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
As tens of thousands of young veterans come home from the wars, many are struggling to find work with civilian employers who don’t recognize their skills, haven’t shared their experiences and aren’t sure what to make of them. The result is that unemployment for veterans, particularly those ages 18 to 24, has been rising even as the national jobless rate declines.
“Unemployment is our No. 1 issue,” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a New York-based advocacy group, in an interview. “Unemployment is not down, it’s up. And it’s a serious problem.”
While the military offers all departing service members transition assistance to help them prepare for civilian jobs, the unemployment rate for veterans who’ve served since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks was 12.1 percent last year, up from 11.5 percent in 2010, according to a report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Among non-veterans, 8.7 percent were jobless last year, down from 9.4 percent in 2010.
May Get Worse
The gap may widen as the U.S. economy recovers. Tens of thousands more troops will be coming home over the next two years from Afghanistan, where the U.S. plans to withdraw most combat forces by the end of 2014. At the same time, the Pentagon intends to reduce the U.S. military by 123,900 troops, or 5.5 percent, by fiscal 2017 to meet budget-cutting goals.
The unemployment burden tends to fall harder on enlisted veterans, especially those who lack technological skills. Most military officers have college degrees and are better equipped to make the transition to civilian careers. Younger veterans who left high school, with or without diplomas, to bear the brunt of combat in infantry or armor units often return to the civilian workforce with no readily marketable skills, according to veterans advocates such as Rieckhoff, who also served as an Army lieutenant in Iraq.
Click, who was honorably discharged according to the Army, spent the past two years delivering pizza as he hunted in vain for more rewarding work to help support the baby he fathered with a girlfriend.
‘Can’t Find Nothing’
“I’ve looked at other things,” Click said as he waited to talk to recruiters at the job fair in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky. “I can’t find nothing. I don’t even know what a resume looks like. I don’t know what’s supposed to be on it.”
The job fair paid off anyway for Click, who said he’s taking a job starting April 16 working in a call center for a unit of Minneapolis-based U.S. Bancorp, which pledged to double its hiring of veterans this year from more than 200 in 2011.
Emily King, a Herndon, Virginia-based consultant who specializes in recruiting and training veterans for civilian jobs, said many other veterans aren’t as fortunate.
“These people are out in the market without a clue,” King said. “They either never get an interview, or they get an interview and they don’t know how to tell the story of their experience.”
‘I Can’t Hear’
Josh Conner, a 28-year-old Army veteran who left the military in February, showed up with his pregnant wife at the Kentucky job fair saying his goal was to find work before his son arrives in May.
The din in the convention hall was a challenge for Conner, who lost much of his hearing from bomb blasts, firefights and mortar rounds in Iraq.
“Most of the time I can’t hear what they’re saying,” Conner said.
The former Army corporal, who fired mortars and provided security on two tours in Iraq, now wears hearing aids. He said he’s filled out about 20 job applications online, with no interviews to show for it.
“It’s a lot tougher than I thought it would be,” Conner said of his job search. “People are scared to take chances,” he said of employers.
JPMorgan Chase, IBM
Companies across the U.S. say they are heeding the government’s call to step up hiring of veterans.
JPMorgan Chase & Co., Delta Air Lines Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and International Business Machines Corp. are among more than 30 companies that pledged last year to hire at least 100,000 veterans collectively by 2020.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has held 102 job fairs over the past year in 45 states and the District of Columbia, helping more than 8,400 veterans and spouses land jobs, according to spokesman Bryan Goettel.
King, the veterans consultant, said she has yet to see the payoff.
“It’s the cause celebre for companies right now to say they’re hiring veterans,” King said in an interview. “What the veterans say to me is, ‘We’re not getting jobs.’”
Women leaving the military face added difficulties, from gender bias to child-care responsibilities and spouses who are still in the service and can’t relocate, according to Kimberly Olson, a retired Air Force colonel who runs a support group for female veterans in Fort Worth, Texas, called Grace After Fire.
More Jobless Women
Of about 945,000 jobless veterans last year, 101,000 were women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Among veterans who have served since 2001, annualized unemployment rates have been higher for women by as much as 1.8 percentage points since the 2008 recession.
In a January online survey by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, 21 percent of female veterans from those wars said they were jobless, compared with 16 percent of men.
“They don’t look like vets,” Olson said. “A lot of them are young. A lot of them are mothers. A lot of them are married to military men. A woman veteran comes back and tries to fit in, being a mom, the spouse. She’s got to get her family back together after 12 months of deployment.”
Jessica McBride, a divorced Army veteran who as a private first class dodged mortar attacks in Iraq and survived unscathed, can’t get a job, lacks a home of her own, and said she fears she won’t be able to support her eight-year-old son.
“It’s hard on me emotionally,” said McBride, 27, who lives with her stepmother in a double-wide trailer outside Ennis, Texas, on a service road off Interstate 45, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) south of Dallas. “As a mom, I feel like I should be able to provide for my child without parental help.”
Since she left the Army in 2010, McBride said she’s applied for 30 to 40 jobs, trying to get a position as a receptionist, in fast food or at Wal-Mart Stores Inc. She hasn’t landed even a job interview, and McBride said she’s had trouble explaining how her military record is a plus for civilian employers.
“I have all this training but no way to put it into an application,” McBride said.
A survey conducted in January by the Society for Human Resource Management found 50 percent of employers that hire veterans cite difficulty “translating military skills to civilian job experience.”
‘Lot of Jargon’
An Army veteran may say his MOS (military occupational specialty) was 11 Bravo (infantry), with a rank of E-4 (specialist) and report a skill level on the military scale of 10 to 50.
“Their resume may have a lot of jargon in it,” Dave Ferguson, General Electric Co.’s manager of military staffing and recruiting, said in an interview.
Veterans “may not be able to convert their skills and abilities, and sometimes we’re not sure what their skills might be,” said Ferguson. In addition to the discipline and teamwork that comes with military service, he said, some veterans have repair and maintenance skills such as the ability to repair the gas-turbine engines GE sells to the Navy. Those who’ve seen the most combat, though, often have skills and training that are harder to translate to the civilian world.
GE has pledged to hire 1,000 veterans a year for five years. That would amount to about 10 percent of all new hires annually, “a pretty lofty goal” that the Fairfield, Connecticut-based company hasn’t met in previous years, he said.
The transition programs offered by the military vary by service branch, each offering at minimum a three-day workshop run by the Department of Labor that teaches skills such as resume writing and job interviewing.
Help ‘Not Relevant’
“So far, we haven’t heard anyone say one good thing about it,” said Colleen Affeldt, an independent consultant based in Dallas who’s working to help companies hire and retain veterans. “They literally spent three days writing a resume, and the product that was coming out was not relevant to the private sector. It was pages and pages.”
Click, the veteran who’s been delivering pizza for Louisville, Kentucky-based Papa John’s International Inc., said the transition classes he took offered “nothing really useful.”
Walter Herd, director of the Army’s transition program, said its effectiveness is difficult to measure.
“Many of the components are being re-engineered to make them more user-friendly,” Herd said in an interview.
Hiring Tax Credit
Federal legislation signed last year that took effect on November 22 will provide tax credits of as much as $5,600 for employers who hire veterans who have been unemployed longer than six months. The credit rises to $9,600 for disabled veterans.
President Barack Obama also is seeking $1 billion over five years to develop a Veterans Job Corps to hire as many as 20,000 veterans for conservation projects, a government-job approach that’s been questioned by Republicans such as Senator John Boozman of Arkansas, a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
The issue won’t go away, though.
“One of the risks involved as we reduce the budget by this level is how to ensure that we take care of those that are returning,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said at a Feb. 14 hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Jobless veterans such as McBride in Texas, who lives on a $1,000 monthly stipend for attending community college on the GI Bill, say they aren’t expecting much more help from Washington as they struggle to find careers.
“Sometimes I wake up thinking I should go back into the Army,” she said. “It was job security, and it was something I was pretty good at. But my son doesn’t want me to.”