MESA, Ariz. — When Michael Luna left for basic training with the Arizona Army National Guard in July, little did he know what his time would be occupied with when he would return home in December.
Finding a job.
The 21-year-old private who lives in the Valley, falls within the 40 to 50 percent of veterans returning from basic training or active duty who are unemployed. That number is considered the norm, but officials at the Arizona Army National Guard's Papago Park base, located near the Phoenix/Tempe border, say trends suggest the unemployment rate of veterans who return to civilian life could be on the rise. Part of that, they say, may be attributed to U.S. communities small and large experiencing the return of more soldiers to civilian life — a byproduct of the United States winding down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and therefore decreasing deployments.
Representatives from employment services at the base said Luna's situation is part of a big change over the last two years.
Just last week, about 40 Arizona military personnel who worked in the medical field returned from deployment with the C-I59's National Guard's Aviation Company. Many of them are from the East Valley, flooding the market with experienced personnel looking for jobs.
"I've been looking all over," Luna said of his search as he handed an application to Krista Titus. Titus is a volunteer Employment Resource Center coordinator for the Be Resilient Program, part of the Personnel Readiness Center at the Arizona National Guard's Papago base, 5636 E. McDowell Road.
"It's been real difficult," Luna said, adding he would like to work with kids or in security. "I've been applying everywhere. I can't find anything."
So far, the Town of Gilbert has been a leader in welcoming its veterans home — and ultimately back to work — as it formed its "Operation Welcome Home" program in December 2011. Welcome Home aims to not only recognize veterans joining the service or returning home, but also to help lessen the burdens and uncertainties associated with returning to civilian life. This often includes introducing them to veterans organizations, employers and mentors.
Although it is a challenging job market, there are steps veterans can take to help their individual causes.
Employment services and resources are available for all branches of the service inside another building at the Arizona National Guard's Papago base.
The Yellow Ribbon Re-Integration Program — established from the National Defense Authorization Act of 2008 with a purpose to connect National Guardsmen and their families to services in the community — works in a similar manner. Its office at the Papago base is working with more than 120 community partners offering job fairs and other services.
The program educates those leaving for duty and returning home, as well as their families, on services available.
Charles Wade works for the Military Personnel Services Corporation, representing the Arizona Air National Guard inside the Personnel Readiness Center. Wade said the landscape of the job market has become more challenging since the military first saw a surge of enlistment after 9/11.
"A lot of veterans are not aware of the services we have available or the entitlements they have to help them with employment and in many other areas," Wade said. "Like job hoppers, there used to be deployment hoppers ... Guardsmen and reservists would return home from a deployment in Iraq or Afghanistan, spend two or three months looking for a job and realize there wasn't anything available, so they'd volunteer for another deployment. We're going to be seeing less of that.
"A number of veterans joined the service right out of high school, and they don't have a resume, so we help them with that," Wade added. "They already know responsibility ... but they need to know what to say in an interview and dress for success. We need to get our service members in front of employers," Wade said. "Getting a job is a No. 1 priority. It creates stability so they can move forward."
In some cases, companies are looking to specifically hire veterans. The Phoenix office of Fargo, N.D.-based Open Range Energy Service recently filled 45 of about 70 oil fracker positions — paying between $60,000 and $70,000 — with veterans.
Another company, Atlanta-based Gleason Research, was looking to fill some logistics positions, and it sought help from the base in filling those jobs. Gleason hired a handful of people from Arizona, Titus said.
Since the employment resources center, an office under Maricopa Workforce Connections, opened at the base in September, Titus said she has helped 469 service people garner leads, with 184 of them landing jobs.
Titus, also a volunteer for the Service to Armed Forces Division of the American Red Cross, knows that's a small dent. But it's still progress, as she pointed to folders on her desk filled with the applications of 1,300 servicemen and women and who registered on www.arizonacoalition.org/employment.
Titus noted that a number of veterans have found jobs, although in many cases, it's not what they'd otherwise be qualified for.
"There's also the issue of underemployment," Titus said. "These veterans will take a job because they have to have something, but it sometimes doesn't pay very much. So our services also allow them to stay on file with us if they're looking for a better one. It's encouraging when you get a call from a soldier saying that job lead you gave them panned out and that they start the job next week. We just need to get the word out that we're here."
Information from: East Valley Tribune, http://www.eastvalleytribune.com