Finding Work Remains a Struggle for Veterans

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Finding Work Remains a Struggle for Veterans

Despite highly visible efforts — by Congress, legislatures, businesses and philanthropists — to push jobs initiatives, about 166,000 veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or nearly 8 percent, have not found work since returning to the civilian work force.

Produced by Mauro Whiteman/News21
Luis Duran joined the Marine Corps after 9/11 and served two tours in Iraq. But in 2013, with a master‘s degree in criminal justice, Duran has struggled to find his dream career in law enforcement. He blames his job-search challenges on his disability and the stigma that veterans face.

Job fairs, though highly touted and backed by the best of intentions, have produced minimal success, according to data reviewed by News21. For example, Hiring Our Heroes, a series of job fairs sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, have resulted in fewer than 10 percent of veterans finding work. Unemployment for post-9/11 veterans has hovered above the national average since 2008, when data for this generation of soldiers became available.

Beyond jobs in general, the Obama administration has prodded states to recognize military experience as sufficient for state licensing — certifying truck drivers, nurses and paramedics, among others. But most state licensing boards have so far delayed such steps, forcing veterans to duplicate their training to be licensed to do their military jobs in the civilian sector.

Congress also has encouraged self-employment by creating federally backed loans for veterans to start and expand their own businesses, but their default rate is significantly higher than nearly twice that of business loans overall.

Luis Duran, a New Yorker who entered the Marine Corps in the wake of 9/11, fought in Iraq and survived a suicide bomb attack. He took his resume, which boasts undergraduate and graduate degrees in criminal justice, to a job fair at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, just across the river from where the twin towers of the World Trade Center once stood.

After four months Duran finally found a security job, but not the career in law enforcement he’s wanted since childhood. Unemployment and underemployment have become part of his post-military life.

“The hardest thing you can ever do isn’t joining the military. It is hard,” but, the 30-year-old veteran added, “the most difficult part is getting out.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation has presented more than 560 Hiring Our Heroes job fairs since 2011 to reach veterans such as Duran.

Kevin Schmiegel, executive director of Hiring Our Heroes, said the hiring rate for these fairs is between 8 and 12 percent. At 50 job fairs, employers claimed they offered jobs to 25 percent of participants, according to survey data by Hiring Our Heroes partner RecruitMilitary.

Job search analysts call fairs an ineffective way to get hired, often because job seekers far outnumber employers, and most organizations that present job fairs don’t track hiring rates. Job fairs are the least-effective way to find work, according to a 2009 survey of human resources executives.

John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, which conducted that survey, likened some job fairs to show-business cattle calls, and estimated that fairs generally have hiring rates below 2 percent. Hiring Our Heroes’ rates are “extraordinary,” Challenger said, adding that the fairs offer job seekers prospects that “most people would kill for.”

Hiring Our Heroes resulted in jobs for 20,200 veterans and military spouses through March 2013, the vast majority of hires being veterans, officials said.

Army veteran Ray LeDay pitched his information technology skills at the June 17 Hiring Our Heroes job fair at Georgia Tech. The 44-year-old Atlanta native didn’t get a full-time job, but he did get a paid training program that could lead to job with Hewlett-Packard Co. LeDay, a retired sergeant first class, lived off his service benefits for the last year while completing his business degree online.

“I shouldn’t be seeing the same people at every job fair,” LeDay said after attending his fourth job fair. He also questioned whether many employers are simply looking for a public relations boost, not employees.

“If you want to hire veterans, hire veterans,” LeDay said.

Hiring Our Heroes fairs require participating national employers, such as Home Depot or CitiBank, to have at least two open positions locally and five nationally. Small businesses must have at least one open position to attend the fair.

“If you don’t have jobs in that city, it doesn’t make sense for you to come,” Schmiegel said his organization has told its partners.

He views job fairs as limited resources in reducing veterans’ unemployment.

“A hiring fair in itself is not going to solve the entire problem,” said Schmiegel, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel.

Several employers at a Lincoln, Neb., Hiring Our Heroes fair didn’t have jobs, their recruiters said in interviews. A Nebraska Public Power District recruiter said she wanted veterans to keep the company in mind because jobs might be available later this year.

LeDay called such practices a “disservice” to veterans.

Schmiegel’s organization has blocked some companies from job fairs unless they meet the jobs requirement, he said, and he hopes the problem will resolve itself as more fairs are presented.

Job fair applicants generally are young, he said, and often applying for private-sector jobs for the first time. Jargon-filled resumes and the inability to explain military skills to civilian employers might explain why many veterans don’t get jobs through the chamber’s fairs, Schmiegel said.

Fairs play an introductory role, he said.

“It wasn’t just about doing a hiring fair and yielding 40 jobs here or 60 jobs there,” Schmiegel said. “It was about creating a large-scale movement that would make this issue visible in all 50 states.”

Part of the issue for many veterans isn’t explaining what they did in the military, it’s getting that experience recognized by state licensing boards. Many veterans return from combat jobs — such as medics, truck drivers or electricians — with experience that could be useful in civilian careers. In most states, veterans seeking work in a licensed occupation — nursing and building trades, in particular — must spend their time and money at a trade school, or up to 8,000 hours — nearly four years of active duty — training as an apprentice.

Prior to 2008, not a single state mandated that licensing boards accept relevant military experience. Thirty-two states have passed such legislation — 31 in the last two years –according to a review by News21. New Hampshire passed the first law in 2008. Eight states have pending legislation to overhaul licensing requirements.

“You have so many people who are coming home and trying to join the workforce,” said Derek Kilmer, a former Washington state senator. His 2011 state law was the third such licensing act passed. “It neither serves the interest of the veteran nor the state to deny opportunities to people who are capable.”

Yet state officials say the most difficult part comes not with passing the bills — nearly all have been supported unanimously — but with implementing them.

New Hampshire in 2008 was the first state to pass a law requiring licensing boards to credit military experience. Utah was the second in March 2011, followed a month later by Washington. But two years later, Utah’s licensing department — responsible for 75 separate career fields, nursing included — has yet to implement the changes.

“What (the legislature) wanted to do is make it so all military experience counts. The problem is we don’t know what that means. You have to define specifics,” said Mark Steinagel, director of Utah’s Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing.

Erica Borggren, director of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs, said that while many states have made efforts to change licensing laws, they all struggle to identify acceptable military experience.

“It all oversimplifies how easy it is. ‘You shall give credit to substantially similar experience,’ but ‘substantially similar’ when you get to a career field is really difficult to sort through,” Borggren said at a May seminar in Chicago.

Military-related career fields are booming. Registered nursing jobs alone are expected to grow by 700,000 this decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That means streamlined licensing laws could benefit many of the roughly 72,000 service members with medical occupations in the armed forces, according to Department of Defense figures.

Professional associations are weighing the issue. The National Council of State Boards of Nursing released a report in April opposing waived license requirements. The report recommended veterans should receive partial credit for past training.

“To just hand them a license without any future education would not only be unfair to the patients, but it would be unfair to them,” said Maryann Alexander, the chief nursing regulation officer for the nursing council. “We don’t want to put them in a position where they don’t have the proper training.”

Some corporations are joining the effort to hire veterans.

Walmart and other employers have committed their own resources toward training and hiring post-9/11 veterans. Walmart, the world’s largest private employer, announced in January plans to hire 100,000 veterans over the next five years and started that program on Memorial Day.

Walmart had hired 2,000 veterans and received 21,000 applications through June 28, spokeswoman Kayla Whaling said. The company, which employs 1.3 million people in the U.S., already has about 100,000 veterans on its payroll, she said.

“We believe we’re already the largest employer of veterans,” Whaling said, “and we want to hire more.”

Much of veteran hiring isn’t simply goodwill. In 2011, Congress created and extended tax credits for companies that hire veterans with the $1.7 billion Veterans Opportunity to Work (VOW) to Hire Heroes Act. Companies can claim tax credits of up to $5,600 for hiring a veteran who was out of work for more than six months, up to $9,600 for hiring a disabled veteran out of work for at least six months.

More than the tax credits, $1.6 billion of VOW pays for the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program (VRAP), which was set up to train 99,000 unemployed veterans between 35 and 60 years old for jobs in sectors such as transportation and health care. The program has enrolled more than 57,000 veterans for job training. The Department of Veterans Affairs has until Oct. 1 to enroll 9,000 more veterans. The VA will not be able to fill all 99,000 slots because some veterans applied but chose not to participate, officials said. Participants receive $1,564 a month for up to a year to help pay for community college or trade school tuition.

Also as part of VOW, the Defense Department has revamped its program for how troops separate from active duty. The Pentagon will spend $1.2 billion through 2016 on the Transition Assistance Program (TAP), now mandatory for all services. Prior to 2012, veterans criticized TAP for its outdated curriculum, and the program’s low attendance meant many service members were getting no help transitioning to civilian life. Between 2009 and 2011, TAP participation never exceeded 54.1 percent of separating service members, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

After leaving the military, many veterans continue to seek jobs with military contractors and law enforcement. News21 asked 138 veterans how interested they would be in working for a defense contractor: Nearly 69 percent responded favorably.

Navy veteran Jason Geiger pursued other jobs before falling back on familiarity. He retired from the Navy in 2012. The 44-year-old former commander spent more than three months looking for a job after his 23 years of service, including five years flying missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Geiger looked for work in the hotel business, but eventually he took a job working on aircraft simulators for a defense contractor at the Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Southern Maryland, a move he called “a little depressing.”

Some of the large defense contractors, such as Lockheed Martin Corp. and Northrop Grumman Corp., and private security firms, such as Securitas and AlliedBarton Security Services, have committed to hiring veterans. In 2012, 6.3 percent of Lockheed Martin’s 10,126 hires were newly separated veterans, according to Lockheed Martin. Of Northrop Grumman’s 5,593 hires in 2012, the company said 521 had separated from the military in the last three years and accounted for 9.3 percent of recent hires.

Unemployment rates for Post-9/11 veterans dropped for five straight months this year, but in July jumped to 7.7 percent from 7.2 percent in June., the lowest since November 2008. But among post-9/11 veterans 24 and younger, unemployment still is more than double the overall rate.

Schmiegel from Hiring Our Heroes attributes the downward trend to collective, public/private efforts to hire veterans. As more veterans return, he said, the U.S. should remain aware that unemployment could worsen.

“Everyone talks about the million service members and their families getting ready to leave the military in the next five years,” Schmiegel said. “I think we need to remain vigilant specifically on the populations that need the most help, and that really is the 24 and under, E5 and below, sergeant and below.”

Mauro Whiteman of News21 contributed to this article.

Riley Johnson was a Peter Kiewit Foundation Fellow, and Mauro Whiteman was an Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation Fellow for News21 this summer.