Unemployed veterans skilled in doing jobs, not in finding them

A Monster.com survey finds employers and veterans agree: Departing military personnel have civilian job skills. Language, however, is a problem. One hurdle is translating military jargon.

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    Krista Titus, coordinator for the Employment Resource Center at the Arizona National Guard Papago base, 5636 E. McDowell Road, prepares to look through some of the more than 1,300 applications of military veterans inside the white folders who are looking for jobs, on May 1.

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Veterans today are having a harder time finding jobs than most Americans – but why? They leave the military with sought-after skills. Most are willing to move for the right job. Employers who hire them overwhelmingly say they’re glad they did. 

So what’s the problem? In April, Monster.com, the world’s largest job-search site, and its subsidiary Military.com, the biggest online resource for current and former service members, surveyed 900 employers and more than 900 returning veterans in an effort to find out. 

Their results, released Wednesday in their second, semiannual Veterans Talent Index (VTI), found that majorities of both veterans and employers feel that men and women are leaving the military well prepared to do civilian jobs, but badly prepared to land them. 

“There’s a communication gap here,” says T.L. McCreary, president of Military.com. “It seems like the veteran and the employer talking past each other, at times.”

One hurdle is learning to speak with less military jargon.

Take the example of a Navy fire controlman, the person who operates a ship’s weapons systems and fires its missiles. On discharge, if he sends a resume full of military acronyms and Tomahawk missiles to a computer or electronics company, he’s unlikely to even get an interview. Translated into civilian language, though, his qualifications could be perfect, since his day-to-day military work was operating, maintaining, and repairing sophisticated microcomputers. Whether the veteran can spell that out could mean the difference between a good job and an unemployment statistic. 

“There’s misunderstanding on both sides of the aisle,” says Jason Hansman, membership director for the nonprofit Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

“When less than one percent of the population has served, it’s hard for the other 99 percent to relate to their experience and then be like: ‘Yes, this person can help my bottom line.’ ”

But there’s a great need to bridge that gap – on both sides. Since Sept. 11, 2001, 2.7 million US veterans have served in the military. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, their unemployment rate is 9.2 percent – compared with 7.6 percent of nonveterans – and young workers and women suffer even higher rates. Over a million more Iraq and Afghanistan-era veterans are expected to return to civilian life in the next five years. 

The Veterans Talent Index reports that many come home with the very training employers seek: information technology skills, or management experience. Ninety-nine percent of employers who have hired veterans say they did their jobs as well or better than civilian counterparts, and 99 percent would recommend hiring a veteran.

Veterans, too, feel relatively confident about their abilities; 75 percent agree that their military skills are valuable in civilian careers. But they despair of actually getting those jobs: just 29 percent said they are confident about finding work that suits them.

This frustration is one reason President Obama’s “To Do List” for Congress includes a proposed Veterans Jobs Corps, which he plans to highlight again Friday on a visit to a Minnesota manufacturing plant. The legislation would help Iraq and Afghanistan veterans get jobs as police officers, firefighters, and otherwise serving their communities.

Other existing programs seek to improve veterans’ ability to transition to the civilian workforce. Only 39 percent of employers tell VTI that “veterans or those with prior military experience are prepared for a career transition out of the military;” while 47 percent of veterans say they felt prepared for the transition.

The “VOW to Hire Heroes Act,” which the president signed in November, made the Defense Department’s Transition Assistance Program mandatory for returning veterans. But the jobs training portion is just a sliver of the broad program.

VTI authors see this as a useful first step, but suggest major changes to the job transition program. It shouldn’t consist of an outdated slideshow in a classroom, they say. It should aim to get service members up to speed on all the online search and networking tools their civilian peers, and competition, are using: Monster.com, CareerBuilder.com, Facebook, and LinkedIn, as well as military skills translators and resume building sites.   

“Most of what we see the transition assistance program doing is training people how to get out – not how to get ahead,” says Mr. McCreary, himself a retired Navy rear admiral. “The military spends billions of dollars a year on training; it wouldn’t hurt for them to train people for this transition to the level they train you for everything else.”

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