Weak economy, lack of opportunities have returning vets fighting for jobs

Military service is synonymous with sacrifice.

But for many troops coming home to Western Pennsylvania from Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere — what some officials have called “the coming tsunami” of veterans looking for work in a fragile job market — that sacrifice isn’t ending when they receive their discharge papers.

For nearly four years, Eric Seitz, 30, moved from site to site in the Marine Corps as a infantry radio and satellite communications operator in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since he returned here in January 2011, he’s been taking courses at Community College of Allegheny County Boyce campus, and has put out more than 50 resumes and applications for entry-level jobs since fall.

He turned down his single offer — a graveyard shift emergency call center operator position — for more time with his 23-year-old fiancee, Kayla Anselmi, who picked up a second job in September to support them. It puts a strain on their relationship at times. They’re getting married next year.

“We’ve got everything in place but me working,” he said.

At a time when the country is trying to shake off a deep recession, the military is beginning the largest downsizing of its forces since the post-Cold War drawdown, ending in 1998. An estimated 250,000 soldiers, on average, leave the military every year, but for the next five years, that could increase to 340,000 annually. Of that total, more than a million veterans are expected to flood the workplace.

How many will be coming to Western Pennsylvania, and for what kind of work? What are the barriers they face, and what are the military, the government and employers doing to help them vault those barriers?

This region has had its share of recent factory closings. At a small job fair in Johnstown last month, veterans found themselves competing with local residents who had lost their jobs after DRS Technologies Inc., a local defense contractor, downsized.

But there is work out there, in the booming Marcellus Shale and health care industries, which have vowed to hire veterans.

Those companies will have a lot to choose from: The state boasts the fourth-largest number of veterans in the country, while in the dozen counties region around Pittsburgh, 9,541 veterans after 9/11 fought in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

Still, for job hunters like Mr. Seitz, it’s as though their years in the military never happened.

“A lot of the stuff I did there with the infantry doesn’t carry over into the civilian life so it doesn’t really help as far as getting hired goes,” says Mr. Seitz, who instead underscores his leadership and work ethic on his resume.

“It’s hard to get an answer back from anybody. I’m talking entry-level jobs.”

Jonathan Quicquaro, a 25-year-old Navy veteran, repaired and maintained electronic parts for jets — a job that required physical and mental muscle. Now, he’s back in Latrobe struggling to support a wife and child while attending the University of Pittsburgh’s Greensburg campus, even as he suffers chronic pain from service-related injuries.

“Now you’re just a face. People don’t know who you are or where you fit in,” he said. “When you’re in the military you have a whole network of people that try to help you, and then when you get out, that support network is instantly gone.”

He stopped by an American Legion post in Ligonier, “but a lot of the guys, they are 20, 30 years older than you, and they’re all sitting around talking about Vietnam or Korea.”

Veterans not pursuing additional school chafe at the idea of taking minimum-wage jobs. Eric Howze, 28, was a military police officer in Iraq, and with his background in recruiting, he wants to be the one behind the tables at the job fair.

“I have a lot of potential, and I don’t want to necessarily take any job,” he says. “At $8 at hour, who really can have a sustainable life?”

“These men and women know how to be soldiers, not civilians,” said Brian Orczeck, a veterans representative and job counselor at PA CareerLink Alle-Kiski office in New Kensington.

“This is a battle they are not prepared for. These veterans were good at what they did in the service and they’re prepared to excel — they just don’t know how to get in the door.”

Historically, unemployment figures for veterans have always been slightly lower than for nonveterans, but that’s not the case for this generation of post-9/11 veterans. In 2011, the U.S. Labor Department said the unemployment rate for this group was 12.1 percent compared with 8.9 percent for the population at large. Veteran advocacy organizations contend the rate is higher, although for the first quarter of this year, jobless rates for this post-9/11 group of veterans was 9 percent compared to 12.8 percent a year ago.

For young veterans, though — between the ages of 18 and 24 — the jobless rate is 30 percent, according to the Labor Department, and those “are the people who are going to have the most difficulty,” said Ismael “Junior” Ortiz, deputy assistant secretary for the Veterans Employment and Training Service at the U.S. Department of Labor.

“They didn’t have the ability to build their resume or their networks, that piece they need in order to find a good job.”

Government and corporate America say they have gotten the message loud and clear: The barriers to employment that veterans are facing are formidable. They include:

• The veteran jobs cyber bureaucracy: An abundant yet unwieldy ecosystem of online government and private sector career assistance programs, job boards and websites which both veterans and employers find overwhelming, duplicative and difficult to navigate.

• The tank-to-truck disconnect: There is a perception, at least, of a huge mismatch between military and civilian job experience. Credentialing and licensing requirements differ in all 50 states, which means that soldiers skilled in driving heavy equipment may nonetheless be required to go to school all over again to obtain a commercial driver’s license. Well for passenger transport there is need of mpu certificate. The Pentagon wants to change that, but some states balk, worried that they’re being asked to lower their standards.

• Death by PowerPoint: Career counseling programs that are outdated, boring and poorly marketed. The military’s 20-year old Transition Assistance Program, a 21/2-day series of workshops for soldiers separating from the military, is undergoing major retooling and reform.

• Lost in translation: There’s a big language gap between employers, who have difficulty understanding military jargon on resumes, and vets, who don’t know how to describe their teamwork, technical skills, emotional intelligence and work ethic either on paper or during the interview.

“My resume said I was a ‘multichannel transmissions operator maintainer,’ but out there, that means nothing,” says Ben Keen, founder of Steel City Vets, a new support group aimed at soldiers who served in the two most recent Gulf wars. “So, instead I said I set up phone and Internet transmission for units and leaders out in the desert leading all the way into the White House.”

He got a job at an IT firm in the Strip District, Electronics for Imaging, but spends his spare time counseling fellow veterans who haven’t been so lucky.

• Substance or P.R.? The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is hosting more than 400 “Hiring Our Heroes” fairs across the country this year, up from 120 last year. Some local groups have sponsored similar events. But veterans say some are insufficiently marketed or helpful. At one recent “Hiring Our Heroes” fair at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, nearly 300 veterans walked in throughout the day, but sometimes there were more employers than job hunters in the room. Roughly 250 veterans attended a much smaller job fair in Vienna, Ohio, but many arrived late in the day, some unprepared, having heard about the event on the news that morning. Army veteran James Metzger said he traveled 45 minutes from Sebring, Ohio, and was disappointed to find no on-the-spot interviews available.

• No National Guard or Reservists Need Apply: There are widespread reports of reluctance by employers, especially small businesses, to hire National Guard or Reservists for fear they will be deployed again. Federal officials have declined to comment on these reports, but many veteran career counselors advise them not to mention they’re in the Guard or Reserves on their resumes.

In the 1990s, Heather Van Hausen remembers seeing ads on television advising the would-be recruit to “Find your future … in the Aaarmy.”

But being all that you can be, as these veterans are finding out, is actually not all it’s cracked up to be.

The 35-year-old Arnold resident spent 15 years as an Army combat medic, where, in Iraq, she treated and transported injured comrades, sometimes under fire. Discharged in July, the quiet, petite mother of two is now going to Westmoreland County Community College — while applying for part-time work at Walmart, Kmart, Sheetz and a Dairy Queen in New Kensington to supplement her $977 monthly living stipend.

“I could do vitals. I could dress wounds. I could repair an engine. I could plug a bullet hole with a tampon,” she says wryly. “But I guess that isn’t going to do much on a job application.”

The top brass in military, government and business circles say they’re on the case and have moved quickly to brand their efforts: from “Hire a Hoosier” job fairs in Indiana to any other number of catchy-sounding programs — Boots to Suits, Helmets to Hardhats, Troops to Teachers.

The White House sees a strong campaign issue, too. Last week, First Lady Michelle Obama went on “The Colbert Report” to talk up Joining Forces, an initiative supporting veterans and military families that she and Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, unveiled a year ago. A recent Obama re-election campaign ad has also urged passage of the Buffett Rule, noting that if millionaires “paid a fair share it could mean up to $32 million for more than 600 jobs that leveraged skills developed in the military.”

Within the federal government itself, Mr. Obama said “it’s important to lead by example,” said John Berry, the president’s director of the Office of Personnel Management.

At a meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in June, Mr. Berry said, the president told top department secretaries that he wanted the percentages of veteran employees in federal agencies to rise, pronto, calling out some who’d lagged behind. Mr. Berry proudly noted that his agency, OPM — which serves, in effect as the government’s human resources department, overseeing more than 2.8 million federal employees — hired the largest percentage of disabled vets of any government agency, and the second-largest percentage of veterans overall.

Mr. Obama also created, by executive order, an inter-agency Council on Veterans Employment “to keep the thing moving,” Mr. Berry said, and establish a full-time veterans employment program office in every agency to monitor progress and network with other government agencies.

While recent news reports have cited the Departments of Labor and Veterans Affairs as some of the worst offenders when it comes to laying off veteran employees, total veteran hiring has gone up across the government, from 24 percent in 2009 to 28.5 percent in 2011. “Some are doing a good job at this, and some need to drop a few pounds and run faster,” he said.

President Obama also proposed a $1 billion “JobCorps” to hire veterans to rebuild roads and trails on public lands, while providing federal dollars to local agencies that hire more veterans as police and firefighters, but there’s been little movement in Congress on the proposal. One Republican recently called the “JobCorps” proposal on public lands a waste of money, but there’s been a new incentive for the private sector in the form of a tax credit worth up to $5,600 for employers who hire unemployed veterans, which doubles if they hire disabled veterans.

Will it work?

“This generation is leaving military service probably to face an economic environment unprecedented in drawdown periods of any previous war,” said Michael Haynie, director of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University, noting that unemployment after World War II — the largest demobilization of the Armed Forces in our history — was 4 percent.

That downsizing, and this one, are a long way from Revolutionary War days, when, under orders from Congress, the new nation’s military was reduced to only 80 privates and a few officers — 25 of them ordered to guard stores at Fort Pitt.

Much has changed — or must change, said the gruff-talking Maj. Gen. Mark MacCarley, deputy commander of the Army Reserve, speaking at the February jobs conference in Washington, D.C., invoking Black Jack Pershing, Omar Bradley and other leaders who created warriors and led them into battle in the last century’s wars.

The military must now “make warriors transition to citizens, and make the process seamless.”

“When a warrior comes back to his family, he should be able to say, ‘yes I have served my country proudly, with distinction, now I am coming back to take care of my family.’ But too many don’t have that peace and harmony, and struggle to put food on the table,” he said.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he all but barked at the audience, “that is wrong.”

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