Sgt. Mark Chambers served in the US military for 24 years before he decided to retire and make his transition into full-time civilian life.
That was in December 2009. For 18 months the Army National Guard veteran searched and searched for a job as his bank account began to dwindle. “I started dipping into my savings, draining that – house payments, car payments, repairs, trying to help my mother...”
He found himself unprepared for the job hunt of the civilian world, he says – as well as the target of scammers preying on Sergeant Chambers and other recent veterans during a vulnerable time in their lives.
Chambers's experience increasingly mirrors that of veterans throughout the country, says Bill Nelson, executive director of USA Cares, an advocacy organization for service members and veterans.
Unemployment in some units of former Guard and Reserve veterans “is running 20 to 40 percent in some cases,” he says, and the national veterans unemployment rate is more than 10 percent, outpacing the rate for the general population (9 percent). Among veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq, the rate jumps to 12.1 percent.
For veterans under age 25, it is 22 percent – 5.3 percentage points higher than it is for all Americans aged 16 to 24.
In a nod to these figures, and in anticipation of more veterans joining the ranks of the job seekers as the wars wind down, the Obama administration this week urged lawmakers to pass tax credits for companies that hire veterans. The Senate passed a bill Thursday, 94 to 1, that includes such tax credits, as well as other measures to help veterans. The House could pass the bill next week.
The president also announced the launch of new online services and a job bank to help vets in their search for new careers outside the military.
Also on Thursday, first lady Michelle Obama announced commitments from companies to hire 100,000 veterans and military spouses by 2014, part of the Joining Forces initiative launched in April by Mrs. Obama and Jill Biden, the vice president's wife.
"That's 100,000 veterans and spouses who will have the security of a paycheck and good career," Mrs. Obama said in a speech to the US Chamber of Commerce. "That's thousands of families that can rest just a little bit easier every night."
In the meantime, USA Cares and other advocacy organizations are actively developing their own programs to give veterans a boost and help them develop the skills to compete in the civilian job market.
For his part, Chambers thought his experience as a human-resources specialist would mean that he would be able to land a job relatively easily. “They told me, ‘You shouldn’t have any problems. There’s a need for HR people,’ ” Chambers recalls.
But month after month, job prospects fell through.
Then he began getting phone calls from businesses that offered “to help me sort everything out.” The bottom line came later. “They said, ‘You got to pay this and pay that,’ “ Chambers recalls. All told, the costs would add up to some $1,500.
Nelson of USA Cares has seen former troops grappling with similar scams. He is also working with troops who have struggled to translate their military jobs skills into marketable skills in the civilian world.
“If you were a door gunner in a Chinook [helicopter], that’s a great skill, but it’s not very translatable if you’re trying to find a job as a welder,” says Nelson.
In a partnership with the Associated Builders and Contractors, a 75-chapter association of some 23,000 companies across the country, USA Cares is training former soldiers to become electricians, carpenters, and welders.
Under new provisions that went into effect in October, the new GI Bill now covers the cost of vocational training, so former troops can use their benefits to cover all of the costs of being apprentices for hands-on jobs. USA Cares, for its part, guarantees veterans employment at the end of the work “boot camp,” Nelson says. “Our goal is to have 100,000 veterans hired by next year.”
Sometimes, veterans just need a boost.
After months of job-hunting and living off of his savings, Chambers did not have the gas money to drive from his Connecticut home to a job interview in Washington, D.C. He had heard he might get some assistance from USA Cares, which offered him $100 in gas money, plus $200 to stay in a hotel overnight.
After two interviews, Chambers got the job and now works as an administrator for the US Agency for International Development.
“A lot of veterans are in the same position – they come out and they’re pretty lost,” Chambers says. “They need to understand what they’re facing when they get out. It’s not going to be an easy transition,” he adds. “But it can happen.”