Veterans’ unemployment outpaces civilian rate

Posted Oct. 17, 2011, at 6:31 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 17, 2011, at 7:51 p.m.

CLEVELAND — As soon as Brian Joseph graduated from high school he joined the Army, where he was trained in a series of jobs that seem to exist only in the military.

He was a multi-channel radio operator. Then he worked as a single-channel radio operator. Later, he worked as a psychological operations specialist, tailoring the U.S. war message to residents of Kosovo and, later, Iraq.

But since leaving the Army in 2008, Joseph has found that the rigorous training he gained during 18 years of military service means little to civilian employers.

“When somebody hears about the radio operator gig, they don’t immediately see a civilian application,” he said. “The same for psychological operations. It is really marketing, but they don’t know what it is, and the thing they associate it with is brainwashing.”

Joseph, 43, who has bounced in and out of jobs since returning home, is confronting a problem that is common among job seekers who have left the military in recent years.

Despite the marketing pitch from the armed forces, which promises to prepare soldiers for the working world, recent veterans are more likely to be unemployed than their civilian counterparts.

Veterans who left military service in the past decade have an unemployment rate of 11.7 percent, well above the overall jobless rate of 9.1 percent, according to fresh data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The elevated unemployment rate for new veterans has persisted despite repeated efforts to reduce it.

The latest to try is the White House. In the jobs package President Barack Obama has been promoting across the country is a tax credit of up to $9,600 for each unemployed veteran a company hires.

“If Congress passes this jobs bill, companies will get new tax credits for hiring America’s veterans,” Obama said at a community college in Dallas this month. “Think about it. We ask these men and women to leave their families, disrupt their careers, risk their lives for our nation. The last thing they should have to do is to fight for a job when they come home.”

But employers say such financial incentives for hiring veterans would not address the heart of the problem.

Lionel Batty, vice president of corporate research at GrafTech International, which makes graphite materials integral to products such as smartphone batteries and solar panels, said his firm is moving to hire more veterans, in part by trying to better understand their experiences. But, he said, tax credits have nothing to do with that effort.

“We’ll take them, but we don’t hire people because of tax credits,” he said. “We do what’s right for our business.”

More important than financial incentives for hiring returning veterans is making the skills and experience they earned in the military more understandable for civilian employers, experts say.

“There is not a great deal of knowledge with corporate America on a lot of the skill sets that come from the military,” said Stuart Keeter, a former paratrooper who is a vice president with Alliance International, a recruiting service that specializes in military veterans.

Even as the nation suffers through its longest period of high unemployment in a generation, many employers complain about the difficulty they have finding suitable workers. Some candidates lack the aptitude for certain technical tasks, employers say. Others, they say, are missing the “soft skills” — punctuality, teamwork, the ability to operate independently and take charge of a task.

The paradox for veterans is that those are qualities and skills they possess in abundance. Many employers say they value veterans’ leadership training, discipline and national service. The problem is that employers often have only the vaguest notion of what people learn in the military.

“Hiring veterans is just the right thing to do,” said Thomas Tomasula, director of domestic staffing at Lubrizol, a 7,000-employee firm that makes petroleum additives, industrial lubricants and other specialty chemicals. But, he said, translating the military’s defined structure to the civilian world is not easy, which is one reason why Lubrizol has joined a new effort aimed at placing veterans in hard-to-fill manufacturing jobs.

“Clearly, there are some skill sets in the military that can be attractive to what we do,” he said, “but the military is more defined, there’s more black and white. In business, there is more gray. The challenge is to help people be successful in this grayness.”

A Pew Research Center survey released this month found that large majorities of veterans say the military helped them get ahead in life. They say the service builds character, maturity and self-confidence. Yet, 44 percent of veterans who served in the past decade called the transition back to civilian life difficult — nearly double the rate of veterans who served before them.

Veterans receive preference when applying for federal and a wide range of other government jobs. They qualify for government-funded education and job training. Industry groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce host job fairs aimed at veterans. And a host of firms target veterans for jobs they consider hard to fill.

But such programs have not significantly reduced the jobless rate among veterans.

Trenton Marshall, 25, shipped out for the Navy in 2005. He was in Jacksonville, Fla., training and working as an aviation machinist’s mate. When he left the Navy and returned to Cleveland in 2009, he struggled to find work. Places such as Walgreens and McDonald’s passed on him, he said.

He did land a job at Wal-Mart, where he said a supervisor announced that he would be paid $7.40 an hour — 15 cents an hour more than usual rate — because of his time in the service. That job did not last long.

Now he is out of work, waiting to start school at Cleveland State University, where he plans to use his veteran’s benefits to train as a physician’s assistant.

“I hit the revolving door,” he said. “In interviews, people are all smiles. ‘Thank you for your service. You did a great deed.’ All of that. But then you’d get a letter saying you are unqualified, and you sit there like, ‘Say what?’“

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