As the military drawdown in Afghanistan continues, the United States will add an additional 80,000 veterans from the Army to the civilian workforce. This is on top of the normal annual rate of separations from military service. On this Veterans Day, let’s remember all of America’s soldiers who are receiving pink slips.
Members of the military receive rigorous training from a very selective institution, and they served their country under difficult circumstances that required adaptability and maturity. What more could an employer want?
It would seem a lot more. Despite the many veterans employment initiatives out there, it’s still difficult for veterans to find work, let alone jobs that use them well.
If you were a helicopter mechanic in the military, then it makes sense to seek work fixing helicopters as a civilian. It’s harder for veterans whose primary military job skills don’t directly translate to the civilian workforce.
As an infantry officer for the Army (who left before the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan started), my work included managing a fleet of armored vehicles, supervising the distribution of water in Honduras and assisting a State Department official in Bosnia-Herzegovina. When I completed the coursework for my doctorate degree in public health, I started applying for emergency management and disaster services positions.
I wasn’t even getting called for job interviews. I’d get letters saying that I met the education and skill requirements, but didn’t have the “right” experience for a job. They were looking for specific junior job titles on my résumé that I would never have unless I was to start at the lowest rung of the career ladder at 41 years old.
I ended up getting my next two jobs precisely because I am a veteran. One employer had a contract with the Army and needed someone who could “speak Army.” I became highly prized for my ability to produce PowerPoint slides and “decision-support matrices” according to Army norms. I got my second job when a mentor introduced me to an organization that serves veterans and their families and they created a position just for me. The problem was they didn’t know what to do with me.
During the first three months, I only worked on occasional tasks and found myself unable to tell others what my job was because I didn’t have an official description or direct supervisor. Things finally changed for the better only after I explained that I needed a project and accountability.
Michael Poyma, an employment specialist for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Michigan, has heard many stories similar to mine. And he thinks some of the most common approaches to matching veteran job-seekers and employers need to be rethought. For example, both job-seekers and employers have told Poyma that many job fairs are a waste of time. While some people find jobs this way, it’s a drop in the bucket.
Poyma and others have also noted that veterans gravitate in disproportionate numbers toward certain fields: government service, law enforcement, government contracting, work with veterans. But isolation can just entrench the misunderstanding. This is why Chris Marvin of Got Your 6, and previously, The Mission Continues, has embarked on projects to help veterans integrate fully into the civilian world that they have rejoined. The Mission Continues, for instance, puts veterans to work painting houses, tending community gardens or mentoring kids at a wide range of community and nonprofit organizations.
Poyma and other VA representatives are about to start pilot seminars that will seat potential employers and veterans on opposite sides of the room, separated by a “demilitarized zone.” He will conduct exercises to dismantle the demilitarized zone by discussing systemic barriers to employment (some of which I’ve already talked about, but others such as the cost of retraining for civilian licenses), the stigmas that follow veterans and each side’s particular acronyms and jargon. In the end, he hopes to demonstrate that there is hidden value in a veteran’s résumé if employers will only take the time to look.
Mike Stajura is a doctoral candidate at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. He served in the U.S. Army from 1995 to 2002. He wrote this for Thinking L.A., a partnership of UCLA and Zócalo Public Square.