April 08, 2013

After Soldiering, A Challenging Transition Into Civilian Work

Carlos Ocampo, 26, has been having a rough time of it. A former enlisted infantryman, he has been unemployed since he left the Marines Corps in the fall of 2011. 
“Employers are looking for skills I don’t have,” Ocampo said.

Ocampo circulated among the many employer tables at New York’s recent Hire Our Heroes veteran job fair. Sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the fairs are held throughout the year and around the country, and many of the nation’s most high-profile employers sign on as partners and sponsors.

The major telecommunications companies were all in attendance, along with the big banks, and local, state, and federal agencies. Approach their representatives, and each would describe robust in-house programs for hiring veterans. Most would tell you they are not looking for specific skill sets. Yet soldiers like Ocampo—young, unemployed for long periods, without specific technical skills, unable to jumpstart their desired careers—were not hard to find in the room.

The job fair, despite its admirable and valuable purpose, had a way of starkly laying bare two of the most pressing problems facing today’s transitioning veterans: skills obtained in the military are not created equal; and neither are the companies that say they are eager to employ veterans.

You’d have a hard time gathering that from the reporting that has been done on the subject of veterans’ unemployment. Like corporate earnings reports, laments over what’s been called a crisis have become a quarterly event, with a new round of stories every time the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases new numbers. Veteran advocates make the rounds on cable news shows. Journalists trek out to the latest veteran jobs fair to collect anecdotes. The “crisis” usually boils down to a headline number: that veterans are more likely to be unemployed than their non-veteran counterparts. But as veterans’ advocates Chris Marvin and Brandon Friedman have recently shown, that number is misleading.

Veterans, as a whole, are actually now more likely to be employed than the general population, by about half a percentage point. But the 9.4% rate for America’s more than 2 million post-9/11 veterans is nearly two points higher than the overall rate of 7.7%. That gap is the headline number for the veterans jobs “crisis,” though many reports neglect to add the post-9/11 qualifier.

But even for our newest returning soldiers, the number is misleading. As Marvin and Friedman are right to point out, a large sub-portion of unemployed post-9/11 veterans are between the ages of 18-30, which as a demographic historically have had a higher unemployment rate. This drives up the overall post-Sept. 11 veteran unemployment rate. As a 2012 Center for New American Security (CNAS) report showed, when controlling for education and age, the difference between post-Sept. 11 veteran unemployment and non-veteran unemployment is much less than the headline numbers suggest. (The one important caveat being the 22-24 demographic; veterans that age are more likely to be unemployed than non-veterans by three percentage points.)

The misleading headline numbers—pushed out by both veteran advocates looking to ensure resources are spent on the “crisis” and opponents of the war looking to show its toll on our citizens—actually hurt veterans seeking work, Marvin and Friedman argue, because they perpetuates the stereotype of the “damaged” warrior without the skills and mindset to succeed in the civilian world.

The headline numbers also divert attention away from a different, significant problem: that while the post-9/11 veteran cohort may be comparably employed to its non-veteran cohort, many are underemployed or employed in a field they don’t want to be in. For veterans transitioning back into the civilian world, is not simply about finding a job, any job; it is about transitioning into jobs they actually want to work.

Greg Jaffe’s recent Washington Post story on veterans’ unemployment did well to illustrate on the anecdotal level this crucial distinction. By recounting the struggles of several members of an Oklahoma National Guard unit, Jaffe put a face to a problem faced by many returning service members: the work they can get in the civilian world may be lower-paying and inferior to the jobs they did in the military. (Jaffe notes that the average pay for the veterans placed in civilian jobs—“manufacturing, logistics, and fast food”—by Capt. Bolton, the Guard employment coordinator, is only $32,000 per year.) There are many potential reasons behind this, from family status to physical/emotional stability to education level. But as the 2012 CNAS report made clear, one of the main culprits is unquestionably the inability for many veterans to transition their military experience and skills to the civilian

Note that I use the word “transition” and not “translate.” The latter is often used when describing veterans’ employment struggles, as if a veteran’s problem is merely in their ability to explain on a resume their military job in civilian terms. This may be the case for a military communications specialist looking to work at AT&T. But for a soldier looking to transition into a career that has no direct overlap with his military job, the jump is much more difficult.

Kevin Schmiegel, Executive Director of the Hiring Our Heroes program and former Marine Lieutenant-Colonel, offered up the case of military truck drivers as an example of this phenomenon. One of the most common specialties in the military, states have recently been easing regulations to allow military truck drivers to transfer their certifications directly to the civilian realm. But as Schmiegel says, “What does this do for the soldiers who don’t want to drive trucks when they get out?”

Schmiegel refers to this as “re-branding,” teaching soldiers how to spin their military experience in a way that is more attractive to their chosen civilian profession. And the Hiring Our Heroes organization is taking steps to educate veterans in the re-branding process. Yet the veteran is only one side of a two-sided equation; the employer has to buy into the rebranding as well.

My own story offers another illustration of this point. After attending N.R.O.T.C. during college, I was commissioned into the Navy as a Surface Warfare Officer, a job that is very engineering focused in nature. Never being the engineering type, it wasn’t really the job I wanted in the Navy, but due to poor eyesight and how N.R.O.T.C. is structured, I didn’t have much of a choice. (The only other option was submarines—an engineering job on steroids.) After finishing my term of service, I went off to graduate school not knowing precisely what job I wanted to do but knowing it would involve media and international affairs in some way—the general career path I had envisioned for myself since my first months in undergrad.

As I began to talk to potential employers in the media and development consulting spaces, though, I was consistently confronted with the same question: Why would an engineer want to enter journalism or development? Not only was I an outlier in that I was a veteran; I was a veteran with skills totally unrelated to the fields I was looking to join. I found myself having to explain that neither engineering nor the military had ever been long-term ambitions of mine, that I had simply joined up to serve my country and pay for school. While many of my fellow junior officers waltzed into high-paying engineering jobs and junior management positions at huge corporations, I was often in a position of convincing people that I was not in fact changing careers, but just embarking on the career I had intended all along.

The all-volunteer military has created a mindset within the civilian job marketplace that the military is itself a career choice, no matter how short one’s term of service. As a result, veterans, upon exiting the military, are confronted with a circumscribed set of careers in which they can directly parlay the skills and experience they acquired during their service. They become “stovepiped”—set on a particular career track whether they like it or not. Infantrymen become security or law enforcement officers. Quartermasters become logisticians. Ship drivers become engineers. Gigantic military-like corporations, such as Walmart or Amazon or AT&T or big finance, gladly welcome veterans through their doors since they see them as already acclimated to rigid, hierarchical, rules-based organizations.

Friedman and Marvin touch on this important point. As Marvin says, “Military service does not replace industry experience or college education; rather, it enhances a resume, adding to existing credentials.” For veterans like myself who have extensive educations at quality schools, maneuvering around this stovepipe reality is generally not too high of a hurdle to overcome. But for the thirty-year-old artillery sergeant with a wife and two kids, going back to get his undergraduate degree is likely a much harder proposition. Instead he is forced to wade out into the job market equipped with a lot of vague words on his resume about leadership and timeliness and organization but without any industry experience or education to back them up. He is forced to cast around, looking for general “management” positions that don’t require college degrees or previous industry experience yet pay enough to support his family. In this economy, there are very few of those jobs left. He is forced, like Jaffe’s Guardsmen, to take whatever is left.

In the past, when the draft was in force, military service was viewed as a temporary thing, a short stint serving one’s country before a person could begin a real career. The draft also meant that the military was composed of a larger cross-section of society who entered all manner of industries. Today, the people most likely to hire veterans are other veterans, for the simple reason that they are most likely to value military experience and skills. This was made extraordinarily clear at the jobs fair, where most of the companies present, like Verizon and JP Morgan, employ huge percentages of veterans, and, not surprisingly, have some of the strongest veterans hiring initiatives around. Self-perpetuating feedback loops affecting whole sectors are the result, and the reason why some industries were heavily overrepresented at the fair while others were nearly nonexistent. Media companies, not known for employing many veterans, were horribly underrepresented at the fair, with only three corporations present (NBC Universal, Bloomberg, and CAA). Considering New York’s status as the nation’s media capital, the fact that there were ten times as many journalists covering the event as there were media companies represented speaks to an underlying structural disconnect.

When economic times are good and the country isn’t engaged in extended war, these problems, while still existent, are often invisible to the wider public. But the protracted hostilities in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with the bad economy, have laid bare the flaws in the system. For veterans with technical skills looking to utilize those same skills in their civilian careers, the path to civilian employment may not turn out to be that difficult. But for soldiers like Carlos Ocampo, finding a civilian career outside of security and law enforcement can be a trial lasting years. If there is a veterans’ unemployment crisis, veterans like Ocampo are its face.

Marvin and Friedman are right when they say veterans aren’t asking for charity or sympathy. But the public needs to recognize that for a certain stratum of veterans—those looking to find work outside their military specialties, those with very military-specific skills, those whose familial obligations preclude further education or retraining—the road to a meaningful career is a hard one. Making that road easier, by promoting veteran education and rebranding and improving employer awareness, should be the focus veterans’ advocacy groups. This will not be an easy task. The much-publicized military-civilian gap is wide and getting wider. But we owe it to our veterans to try.