Veterans of Post-9/11 Wars Struggle on the Job Front

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A job seeker talks with a recruiter during a job fair for veterans on September 14, 2010, in San Francisco.

Some Bay Area military veterans returning from service in Iraq and Afghanistan are finding it a challenge transitioning to a civilian workforce. This despite the national push to create more employment opportunities for veterans. The jobs may be out there, but for vets it’s a more complicated process than you’d think.

Job fairs aimed at hiring Bay Area veterans are cropping up all over the place.  At a recent event in San Jose, Steven Ulrich joined a few dozen other vets hunting down prospective employers.
“I hear a lot about veteran unemployment,” he said.  “But I see all these people at the job fair, and it seems like there’s a lot of opportunity out there.”
Ulrich got out of the Marines in April after spending seven months in Afghanistan. He’s now pursuing a degree in computer science.
Last year, President Obama signed a law that targets vets like Ulrich. It grants tax credits to employers who hire veterans. Large companies like JPMorgan Chase are now vowing to employ more former service members. Still, many veterans are finding it tough to find work.
A Major Hurdle: Transitioning
Derek Frazier, a veterans representative with the Employment Development Department in Sunnyvale, says the biggest challenge for vets can be summed up in a word: "Transitioning. It basically boils down to the actual transitioning from the actual military service to the civilan job market and articulating their skills."
Frazier says having a narrow area of expertise--say, a military air mechanic who’s only familiar with a certain piece of equipment--can put veterans at a disadvantage. He also thinks veterans have a hard time articulating their "soft skills"--things like leadership or an ability to work as part of a team. 
“You already have those skills when you come out of the military, and so those skills are transferable,” he says. “But the technical side of things, the veteran is having a tough time articulating those skills and basically showing the employer the value of those skills, relative to the business needs of the employer.”
Frazier says there are plenty of programs available to veterans to help them bridge gaps in their training and qualify them for more jobs.
Skills, But No Certification
Sometimes veterans have the skills, but lack the certification. Hilda Galicia has spent 22 years working in the medical field with the Army National Guard. She says she basically does the job of a licensed vocational nurse, but she's not certified. 
“It’s time-consuming because LVN is a two-year program,” Galicia says. “That would be another two years I'd have to invest in my education to get certified.”
“It’s hard for me that I can't do my job out in the civilian world, and I've done it for so long,” she adds.
Galicia is trying to get work with the experience she has, but says many others are vying for the same positions. 
According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, veterans who served after September 2001 (known as Gulf War Era II vets) had an unemployment rate of 10 percent. That's nearly double the rate among veterans of other eras and about 3 percentage points higher than the number for the non-veteran population. 
Michael Blecker is executive director of Swords to Plowshares, an organization that provides a host of veterans' services. He says there’s a lot more to transitioning to civilian life than just boning up on one’s technical skills.
Adjusting to a 'New Lifestyle'
“I think there needs to be some sort of support to that, recognizing that it’s truly adjusting to a different life style,” Blecker says. “It’s a big deal to come back from a multiple deployment or whatever, from a military situation, and just get right back into it."
Earlier this year, research by Prudential Financial found two-thirds of Gulf War Era II vets are struggling to adapt to life after service. The Veterans Employment Challenges study found two-thirds of vets who have served since 9/11 say they've had a difficult transition to civilian life, and two-thirds say they're biggest challenge is finding a job. Many others have had problems dealing with the post-service system of benefits and support, with their physical and emotional health, and with adjusting to their social life away from the military.
“We've always understood that we have to sort of seat the employment thing within the context of some other services,” Blecker says. "“So even though somebody's coming in, [saying] 'I don't have a problem,’ but then you're like, the person is doing a lot of drinking and they're couch-surfing. Certainly they want to get a job - that's paramount - but there's these other issues that are also out there.”
But not everyone comes back with post-traumatic stress or emotional issues.  Some veterans who’ve gone through multiple job interviews with no offers are starting to wonder whether employers are stereotyping them. 
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