Some go extra mile to hire growing pool of jobless veterans

Thomas Garlic and Steve Castillo found that their time in combat in Iraq and their service in the Army added up to little or nothing when they became civilians looking for work.

By John Smierciak, for USA TODAY

“It was very depressing,” says Garlic, 26, who lives with his wife and 5-year-old son outside Chicago. He was discharged in 2008 with post-traumatic stress disorder and has been largely jobless ever since. “Every time I would go up to bat, I would just strike out.”

“When I first got out (in 2008),” says Castillo, 31, from Biloxi, Miss., a medically retired Army staff sergeant, “I had a lot of motivation, a lot of high self-esteem and everything was good.”

But steady work eluded him as well. He lives today on temporary, often menial labor and an $1,800-per-month government disability check for his combat injuries. “We’re barely scratching by,” Castillo says.

As the nation grapples with finding work for its newest generation of combat veterans, job experts say that basic roadblocks persist for those willing to hire them — how to find these veterans and how to train them in new, non-military skills.

“We’ve just got to be very, very creative about this,” says Michele Deverich, executive director for a consortium of nearly two dozen health care companies committed to hiring veterans. “There’s got to be an extra mile that we walk here to do this. And it’s absolutely worthwhile.”

Nearly 30{cd9ac3671b356cd86fdb96f1eda7eb3bb1367f54cff58cc36abbd73c33c82e1d} of male veterans ages 18 to 24 were out of work last year, compared with a 17.6{cd9ac3671b356cd86fdb96f1eda7eb3bb1367f54cff58cc36abbd73c33c82e1d} rate among civilian peers, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report released Tuesday. Unemployment last year was 12{cd9ac3671b356cd86fdb96f1eda7eb3bb1367f54cff58cc36abbd73c33c82e1d} for men who served during Iraq and Afghanistan compared with 9.3{cd9ac3671b356cd86fdb96f1eda7eb3bb1367f54cff58cc36abbd73c33c82e1d} among civilian males. Women were even worse off with 36{cd9ac3671b356cd86fdb96f1eda7eb3bb1367f54cff58cc36abbd73c33c82e1d} of young female veterans jobless in 2011 compared with a 14.5{cd9ac3671b356cd86fdb96f1eda7eb3bb1367f54cff58cc36abbd73c33c82e1d} rate among young women 18 to 24.

As the economy improves, President Obama has launched an initiative for hiring veterans and there have been some encouraging signs with unemployment rates among veterans trending down so far this year.

“We’re cautiously optimistic,” says Jim Borbely, an economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Obama administration has a campaign that includes tax credits for employers, corporate hiring pledges, job fairs and new initiatives by the Pentagon and Departments of Veterans Affairs and Labor to help ex-servicemembers prepare for and find work.

A survey of employers in January by the Society for Human Resource Management, the largest association of personnel officials with 260,000 members, also found positive signs with 64{cd9ac3671b356cd86fdb96f1eda7eb3bb1367f54cff58cc36abbd73c33c82e1d} of companies hiring veterans in the previous 36 months, up from 53{cd9ac3671b356cd86fdb96f1eda7eb3bb1367f54cff58cc36abbd73c33c82e1d} in 2010.

Still, there were 154,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans out of work last month.

“We’re basically at the beginning stages of this,” says VA spokesman Steve Westerfeld. “Now we’re trying to find a way to put all the pieces together to make sure (veterans) are getting the jobs that they need.”

Time is not on their side.

The Iraq War is over, and the Afghanistan conflict is winding down. The military plans to shed troops — 80,000 in the Army alone, over the next few years — and more veterans will need work.

Meanwhile, says Michael Aitken, a vice president with the Society for Human Resource Management, “they’re getting buffeted by a lot of résumés from (non-veteran) folks that are unemployed, that have the skills and everything else.”

Two-thirds of employers say they are “not all familiar” with key Department of Labor programs aimed at making those linkages, while another 20{cd9ac3671b356cd86fdb96f1eda7eb3bb1367f54cff58cc36abbd73c33c82e1d} say they are aware, but do not use them.

Aitkens says aggressive outreach is required. “The Field of Dreams approach that government does, you build it and they’ll come, doesn’t always work,” he says.

At least a third of employers also worry that a veteran may have post-traumatic stress disorder or some other mental illness, the January employers survey shows.

Federal officials offered mixed reactions.

Ismael “Junior” Ortiz, head of the Department of Labor’s veterans programs, rejected any suggestion that companies aren’t familiar with the many programs for veterans the government funds. “We are successfully connecting with employers,” he says.

Curtis Coy, a VA official, said outreach could always improve, but employers often expect too much from the government. “There are companies that would love us to be their headhunter,” he says.

Best efforts at linking veterans with jobs can be at the community level, he says.

In Elk Grove, Ill., USA Cares, a non-profit that provides financial and advocacy assistance to post-9/11 veterans, and the Illinois chapter of the Association of Builders and Contractors, linked seven veterans, including Garlic, with careers as electricians.

The vets already have jobs promised by Professional Labor Support, a contractor based in Champaign, Ill., and $10-an-hour income while in class to help them support their families.

Their $4,000 apprentice tuition is being fronted by USA Cares until GI Bill vocational coverage comes through, says Bill Nelson, head of the non-profit.

After injuries from roadside bomb explosions in Iraq, Garlic eventually abused pain medication, a common problem in the military. The abuse led to a general discharge, what many employers took a red flag, he says.

Past that hurdle now, Garlic says his life is turning around. “Personally, I’m lifted. My wife has seen a change. I’m happy,” he says. “I’m getting good grades.”

A few weeks ago, the Army brought several unemployed disabled veterans, Castillo among them, to a jobs conference in Washington, D.C.

Castillo, back in Biloxi, says he’s hoping the contacts developed will produce a job.

“There are a lot of promising things,” says Castillo, who earlier this month made extra cash unloading Sheetrock for a construction supply company.

“Right now, it’s a waiting game,” he says.

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