Veterans face ‘unique challenges’ in already difficult job market

ast Thursday’s job fair in Warner Robins revealed a difficult reality for veterans entering an already dim job market.

The annual Veterans Job Fair was attended by more than 2,600 job seekers, nearly a thousand more than had ever attended a previous fair, according to event coordinators.

It isn’t just veterans feeling the pinch — the national unemployment rate rose to 9.5 percent in June — but veterans often face additional obstacles in seeking civilian work.

“They face some unique challenges in finding a job,” said Maureen Wilson, an Air Force veteran and the local manager for the Georgia Department of Labor.

Those “unique challenges” include an inability to apply their military skills to civilian jobs, an inability to communicate how their training translates into civilian work, and the mental and physical scars of war. But even as veterans struggle to explain their work experience, many complain that prospective employers refuse to recognize the skills they learned in uniform.

Transferring to the civilian sector

Eric Song, a human resources manager for Nichiha USA Inc., spent Thursday collecting résumé after résumé — more than 100, he estimated — for two available positions. Many of the résumés came from recently discharged veterans, people in the same position he was in not long ago.

Song served 21 years in the Army, reaching the rank of first sergeant, working mostly in human resources. Then he retired from the military and learned that the transition into the civilian world was not as simple as he expected.

“The skill set we learned in the military isn’t transferable to the civilian sector,” Song said.

Song recalled applying for human resources positions without knowing that professionals in his field are often judged by skills certifications and degrees.

“The laws that govern the military are a little different,” he said.

The two positions he was hiring for were both in production. Nichiha is a manufacturing company that turns raw materials into cement building products. When an applicant handed him a résumé, Song skipped salutations and looked for applicants with a certain certification from Central Georgia Technical College.

Those who didn’t have the certification were told to go get it.

Wilson has heard the story of missing certifications before, and it clearly touches a nerve.

“What you do then is say, ‘I will go to this organization and take the test,’ ” she tells veterans who run into this problem. “Their skills are just as good as the certified skills.”

starting anew at 40

Tech. Sgt. Thomas Whitley is about to retire from the Air Force after 20 years in uniform. As Whitley is well aware, the military offers its troops certain advantages in preparing for a civilian job.

He is nearly finished with his bachelor’s degree in math from the University of Maryland, which has classrooms in many duty stations in Europe in addition to its popular online program.

“I’ve got a top secret (security) clearance,” he added. “Few people outside the military can say that.”

But in entering the civilian world, Whitley, to a certain extent, is starting over again.

“Probably the biggest negative is, you’re going to come out 40 years old, trying to go into a new career field,” he said.

Naturally, there are things the military does that have no corresponding employment in the civilian world. Using the Army’s infantry as an example, Wilson makes the point that veterans have a range of skills that aren’t apparent at first blush.

“The private sector doesn’t have a lot of people walking around with guns,” Wilson said. “Even if you’re in the infantry, you’re managing all of the equipment.”

Speaking a new language

And then there is this problem, explained by Wilson: “The military talks in a different language than the private sector.”

Staff Sgt. Timothy Harris will soon be discharged after 10 years in the Army. When asked what he does in the Army, Harris responded that he was a “35 Hotel,” using the code that designates his job. For his commanding officers, they would certainly recognize that Harris was a ground station operator, responsible for communications and targeting.

For a civilian interviewing Harris for a job, it’s far less likely that the interviewer would recognize what a “35 Hotel” does from day-to-day. “It’s an adjustment,” Harris said. “I’m still trying to figure all this out.”

Troops leaving the ranks are given a wealth of training opportunities to prepare for what’s next. The military and the Department of Labor sponsor instruction on how to prepare for the civilian world, including a tutorial on speaking like a civilian.

“They give them a list of (military) terms to convert into the civilian world,” said Ed Drohan, spokesman for Robins Air Force Base. They can start their transition out as early as one year before their discharge. The program includes mock interviews and résumé writing workshops.

Many of these programs are optional, however. Sometimes the adjustment is harder than simply speaking a different language.

“I was numb”

One Warner Robins veteran, who asked not to be identified, recently started work with a manufacturing company shortly after returning home from Fallujah, Iraq. Since the day he returned home, he dealt with intense post-traumatic stress disorder. “When I came back from war, I was numb,” he said. “I just didn’t want to go to work.”

And so he didn’t, and soon he was laid off. This veteran joined the ranks of the unemployed at the job fair, “looking for anything that pays.”

The incentives to hiring veterans are numerous. On top of the obvious allure of “supporting the troops,” employers now get a tax cut for hiring veterans who were discharged within the last five years, courtesy of the $787 billion economic stimulus plan. Yet the unemployed numbers are so high that for every troop currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, there’s a post-9/11 veteran unemployed back home.