"Thanks for serving -- sorry we don't have anything for you."
That's the message more and more recently returned veterans are receiving from employers these days when they apply for jobs. The unemployment rate for veterans ages 18-24 last month was 21.1 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics -- more than double the national average (9.7 percent).
The number of veterans in the United States is an astounding 22.2 million. Upward of 1.9 million have been deployed since 9/11.
"More than than 220,000 military members complete their service obligations or retire every year, and just about all of them are looking for a civilian job," says Lisa Rosser, a veteran herself who has started The Value Of a Veteran, a consulting service that specializes in educating human resource professionals on the best practices for finding, recruiting, and retaining military service members.
"Many employers do see the value of veterans in the workplace as it relates to their loyalty, integrity, and work ethic," says Melanie Gutermuth, a 25-year-old veteran who served in the Army for four years and has been searching for a job in the Washington, D.C., area for about 12 months. But, she adds, "There seems to be the notion among some people that veterans are overly troubled, medication-reliant people, and therefore not as stable or reliable. Not all veterans are impaired by their experiences."
No one can be completely prepared for a physical, mental or emotional injury, and about 21 percent of those coming home from serving after 9/11 report having a service-connected disability. However, notes Gutermuth, these vets "have a wide variety of military and VA services available to them to help them rehabilitate and successfully return to the workplace. As a result, veterans are often some of the most innovative and dedicated members of a work team."
Still, vets face many unanticipated employment obstacles. Some employers fear service members might be deployed again after being trained and starting the job. And then there's the sad fact that while they were overseas serving their country, back in the United States, jobs were being cut en masse. Veterans are coming home to one of the worst employment environments in this country's history.
Gutermuth says she's had "quite a difficult time finding and maintaining a (full-time) job," although she's worked seasonal and temporary jobs. "Something that has been a burden for me, and for many other veterans I know, is that when filing for VA services and benefits after discharge, there are often a lot of medical appointments to attend. The VA does not schedule at your convenience; you must take what you are given, and they usually take all day. When you are a young new employee constantly having to take days off of work, it reflects negatively on your work performance. There is new legislation that is supposed to protect against this, but it is too new to see it in practice yet."
So, what should a job-seeking veteran do to improve his or her chances of landing a job?
Know how military skills apply: "One of the obstacles many veterans face when they reintegrate back into the civilian job force is the ability to translate the skills they've acquired in the military into a non-military job," says Kathie Scarrah, deputy director of the Army Reserve Employer Partnership Office. She says that both veterans and employers need to recognize that commanding a unit of soldiers on the battlefield in Iraq employed skills that a project manager in the civilian work force uses. Whether you're under fire in the field or in the board room, service members bring strategic thinking, leadership, dedication and skills to the table. Veterans would do well to stress that in interviews and on applications, Scarrah advises.
Start your own business: Jim Wilson, a business attorney and veteran who advises vets to start a business or buy a franchise, says, "Veterans generally have some great characteristics that will help them be successful as business owners, but they often do not have some basic business skills for running a business. Veterans also have to deal with having achieved at a certain level that takes time to translate to the civilian business world. This can be frustrating, but it can be avoided by taking charge and starting a business or buying a franchise." He mentions that with loans and grants available these days, the timing could be perfect. [See Veterans: Tired of Taking Orders? Start a Business.]
Seek out helpful organizations: For those who are not quite prepared for or in a position to start their own business, there are a number of organizations that train and assist veterans in finding a job. One such organization is the Veterans in Piping Program, a partnership between the U.S. military and the United Association of Plumbers, Pipefitters and Sprinklerfitters. The program starts with two weeks of transitional training to help returning veterans adjust to civilian life. They then take16 weeks of accelerated welding training at one of 30 training facilities throughout the United States. Best of all, it's free to veterans -- and when they finish the training, there are networking specialists that help them with job placement. More than 1,000 veterans are already members of organization.
"The success rate is 100 percent placement of participants who graduate, complete required certifications, and commit to placement," says Mark McLaughlin, a communications specialist who works with the VIP program and the Air Conditioning Technical Center in Miami. "They have a very detailed entrance examination, which helps to explain why their program is doing so well, placement-wise. It takes a person with a lot of discipline, dedication, ambition, and willingness to learn to succeed in this program. The VIPs already have been through the military, so they already have those qualities – especially discipline."
Although Gutermuth remains unemployed full-time, she's still hopeful. "It is important to maintain the values and work ethic learned in the military. But it is equally important to strike a balance and learn who you are as an individual outside of the uniform," she advises.