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Returning Veterans Unarmed for Job Searches

Face long odds in finding employment; have trouble translating their experience into work skills.

November 9, 2011

When Sgt. Newman Fortunato checked out of the Army and re-entered civilian life in 2009, he began by going back to school on the GI Bill. After nearly five years in the service, including 16 months in Afghanistan, he was determined to get off to a good start. But his disability benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder and scholarship money did not leave him enough to support his family, and he began to look for work.

After 18 months of fruitless efforts, on the recommendation of his PTSD counselor he turned to Fedcap, which provides training and employment services to veterans, the handicapped and others. In February, the not-for-profit group hired Fortunato to work in its Bronx mail facility.

"I thought I was going to find a job in a month or two," he said. "I was a supplies sergeant, but I also did armory work, hazmat, mail work and combat missions. If you write a résumé, it's hard to translate the things you learn in the Army to the civilian world."

Actually, Fortunato is one of the lucky ones. By year's end, 40,000 U.S. soldiers are scheduled to leave Iraq, with many of them eventually hitting the job market. Unfortunately, they face long odds. The national unemployment rate now stands at a daunting 9.0 percent. The jobless rate among veterans nationally is 2.5 percentage points higher, and in New York state it is 6.2 points higher.

Veterans' advocates insist that more needs to be done to transition service members back into civilian life. Many say that effort should start with helping vets translate the skills gained in the military to terms that civilian employers can understand. Even the most junior infantryman has valuable skills, ranging from the ability to cope with stress to the ability to work in a large organization.

"Many military members don't do a good job of explaining what they did," said Lisa Rosser, an Army vet and author of The Value of a Veteran. On the other hand, she notes, employers need to be more open to the idea that hiring veterans pays tremendous benefits.

If nothing else, with two wars now winding down, the issue of jobs for vets seems to be getting more attention. At a conference last month in lower Manhattan, representatives from companies including Walmart and Citigroup compared notes on their strategies for hiring veterans. The event was hosted by TMP Worldwide, a digital advertising agency.

"Hiring vets isn't new to us," said Tim Enright, senior vice president of TMP Government. "But in a slow economy, it's tougher to match veterans to jobs if they don't have the requisite skills."

For years, the armed services have relied on three-day Transition Assistance Programs, which include help in résumé writing and career building.

But many vets fail to sign up.

"We spend billions of dollars and man-hours training the military, and we're totally OK with throwing that investment away," said Tom Tarantino, senior veteran lobbyist for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "It's not about encouraging people to hire vets. Instead, it's all about us taking a step back and figuring out why we got [a high vet unemployment rate] in the first place."

Tarantino knows what he's talking about. A vet himself, he was jobless for 10 months after leaving uniform in 2007. And that was despite his having led, as a platoon leader, a 50-person battalion in Iraq. Ultimately, he got a job in a field he knew all too well, helping persuade Congress of the need for a new veterans jobs bill.

Such a measure would seek to do everything from making transition training mandatory, to providing tax breaks for employers who hire veterans. The bill is currently before the Congress.

Locally, there's action as well. Recently, five big banks, including Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, formed Veterans on Wall Street and committed themselves to hiring vets and educating other employers on the value of doing so.

"We wouldn't go to war disorganized, so we should not bring veterans home disorganized," said Christine McMahon, chief executive of Fedcap. "When they come home, they shouldn't have to work that hard to understand what they need and how they should best access it."

One of the thornier issues facing returning vets is that many need more than jobs counseling. Of the more than 2.3 million who have returned from Iraq to date, about 20 percent reported having post-traumatic stress disorder. Well-publicized attempts by the government to strip away the stigma associated with PTSD and to encourage vets to seek help were well-meaning. But they backfired, according to some experts, by creating a connection in employers' minds between veterans and PTSD.

People serving in the reserves and the National Guard have the hardest time finding jobs: 20 percent of them are jobless. Although federal law requires employers to hold their posts open for them while they serve, many were unemployed when they signed up. These military personnel get little in the way of government assistance.

"I don't know what's in the mind of an employer, but I would have to tell them that returning service members are well-disciplined and are leaders, managers, and they're drug free," said Col. Curt Williamson, human resources officer for the New York State Division of Military and Navy Affairs.

Rebecca Olles writes for Crain's New York Business, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, email editors@workforce.com.

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