Work provides so much more than a paycheck. It provides a routine, a community. —Dr. R. Tyson Smith, a sociology professor at Brown University
OGDEN — Aaron Conley joined the Air Force in 2007 when he couldn't find work at home in Jackson, Tenn., to help support his then-pregnant wife. For the last six months his wife and daughter have lived with him on Hill Air Force base. At 24 years old, he proudly — with a lot of jargon — talks about his work in storing munitions. The trucks he drives for the military are described by the ton, as are the bombs he helps strap to the back.
"I know my job. I enjoy it," Conley said.
But he wants to "experience civilian life" now. When his Air Force contract ends he plans to return to his family in Jackson. "I want to go home," he said. Only after months of looking he once again cannot find work. And his wife is once again pregnant.
Conley is part of the new generation of veterans, many returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. They will make the adjustment to civilian life as many have done before — but times have changed. The economy is nowhere near as welcoming as World War II vets experienced, or for veterans from the first Gulf War for that matter. And the types of jobs most available do not necessarily lend themselves to the skills of ex-soldiers. This is especially troubling to experts, who say that a steady job helps soldiers transition to civilian life after years of regimented existence.
Some things are better for veterans. Employers now sometimes go searching job boards to hire a vet over a non-vet. Being in the war isn't something to hide on your resume anymore.
"In my war, you didn't say a thing. You shut your mouth. You didn't let anyone know where you have been," said Dr. Robert Banz, director of education at the Utah Veterans hospital, who served in Vietnam. "Many (newer veterans) don't understand a vet is looked at as positively compared to in the past."
There are plenty of government programs to help veterans find work, ditch military jargon in their resume and feel more confident in a civilian interview. Conley has heard about some programs but can't get away from work until his contract ends. There's also the federal VOW to Hire Heroes Act, passed in 2011, which expands education, training, transition programs and offers tax credits for employers who hire veterans. President Barack Obama recently called for spending $1 billion over five years on a new "Veterans Jobs Corps," putting veterans to work on conservation programs.
A Growing Problem
The veteran unemployment rate has been historically lower than for non-veterans — 7.7 percent compared to the national 8.5 percent unemployment rate.
But the problem is with young veterans around age 18 to 29. In 2010, the unemployment rate for people between 20 to 24 and 25 to 29 was respectively 15.4 percent and 10.7 percent, while veterans in those age groups were unemployed at rates of 20.6 percent and 14.9 percent.
Those from the second Gulf War era make up the smallest share of veterans and have the highest unemployment rate.
Call-up policies especially affect soldiers trying to find a job during today's open-ended conflicts. The highest unemployment occurs with reservists and the National Guard. The 2007 Military Authorization Act changed the maximum length of duty from 270 to 365 days, which Ted Daywalt, CEO and President of the online job board Vet Jobs, thinks make it harder to hire a veteran still on contract with the military. Some employers chose not to invest in workers that may be called away for up to a year. Although Daywalt thinks many employers would like to hire more veterans, and he appreciates the businesses that do.
"Businesses bending over backwards to hire veterans, make an old fart like me feel wonderful," says Daywalt, who remembers what it was like returning from Vietnam.
Daywalt said that soldiers should stress to potential employers that they won't be called up again. For them, the war is over.
Structure of war, chaos of peace
"Work provides so much more than a paycheck. It provides a routine, a community," said Dr. R.Tyson Smith, a sociology professor at Brown University.
Smith is researching how the transition out of the military affects a soldier's understanding of self.
When veterans cannot find work the opportunities for relationships are limited, Smith said. This can lead to less social support that is crucial for a veteran's mental health.
Because of the closeness of a soldier's immediate unit others will notice when someone is struggling. But this warning mechanism can disappear when veterans return home and are surrounded by people who have not seen them in months, and may not realize how they've changed.
Retired Marine Corps Col. Darcy Kauer, who was the Commanding Officer of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force Headquarters Group at Camp Pendleton from 2004 to 2007, recommends keeping a unit together after combat. Kauer is a big advocate of peer support and peer mentoring.
"The best thing for veterans is to have dynamic support … former unit, minister, family. Whatever you are struggling with will be magnified if you are unemployed" Kauer said.
"I just know how to work with bombs"
John Parman, an economist at the College of William and Mary, has researched the differences in employment for veterans old and new.
"After World War II, many veterans found employment in farming and blue collar employment. … Over 35 percent of veterans in 1950 were employed in either manufacturing or agriculture," Parman said.
From his research, veterans in 1950 mostly filled the "operatives" occupational category, which includes many unskilled manufacturing jobs. In 1980 that occupational category ranked third for veterans at 16.31 percent, and by 2010 it ranked fourth with only 13.48 percent of veterans working in the occupation.
"As the availability of (farming and blue-collar) jobs have declined, we have seen a shift of veterans into the service sector and white collar occupations," Parman said.
In some cases, civilian requirements do not recognize skills gained in the military. Conley, the Air Force worker, has found civilian certification burdensome.
"I have driven a 10 ton tractor-trailer (but) couldn't do that outside of the military," he said.
Officials seem to be aware of this problem. The VOW to Hire Heroes Act "requires the Department of Labor to take a hard look at how to translate military skills and training to civilian sector jobs," according to the bill's description on the House of Representatives website.
Veterans already have a hard time describing their skills gained in the military to civilian employers.
"A lot of soldiers do not think it through. Vets need to take initiative. Did you disarm bombs? Well then you're a technician. Did you lead men in war? Well then you managed people. You have managing skills," Daywalt said.
Jerry Acton, who retired after over 20 years of service at the Utah National Guard, found himself unemployed after a contract for private work with the federal government fell through. Acton found a new job this month at Allied Barton Security, but he described the period of unemployment, starting in October, as a "very stressful time." And the anxiety of unemployment made it harder to sell himself well to employers.
He ended up taking a one-day resume building class sponsored by the Employer Partnership of the Armed Forces. The class helped him translate accomplishments into civilian-speak.
"No one knows what a J1 is," Acton said. He now says he was a personal director. Instead of squad or platoon he says personnel.
Some experts think that returning to a service job could be hard on a veteran, no matter what kind of job they get
"A young person might have life and death on their fingers (while in the military). But they come back to a world not considered more than a kid," Banz said.
Banz said that many times there is nothing comparable for employment for combat veterans. There are only so many security guard jobs.
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