U.S. Soldiers Return Home To A Land With Limited Job Opportunities
By Alexandra Alper
NEW YORK -- Army Officer Donna Bachler hasn't had a regular paycheck since she left active duty four years ago, even though she boasts the kind of skills employers vie for.
Bachler, 30, helped run the U.S. Army's postal service in Kuwait, tackling challenges such as how to crack down on mailed contraband and speeding the flow of mail to troops.
Now back in the United States, she gets by on her husband's salary, which will be cut by more than half when he retires from the military as soon as next year.
"One of the ways I sold (military service) to myself and my parents is 'it looks good on a resume,''' said Bachler, who estimates she has applied for at least 1,000 jobs since 2007. ''Sadly, it doesn't.''
As U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, tens of thousands of veterans are flooding the job market at a time when millions of civilians can't find jobs.
In June, unemployment among recent veterans grew to 13.3 percent, more than 4 percentage points higher than the national average.
From 2008 to 2010, that rate rose from 7.3 percent to 11.5 percent, and it's expected to climb further as more troops come home this year -- 10,000 from Afghanistan and, unless Iraq requests some to stay, the remaining 46,000 from that country.
"There is a sense of abandonment,'' said Daniel Nichols, former chief of staff for the Labor Department's Veteran Employment and Training Services (VETS). He is now director of Military to Medicine, which trains veterans and their spouses for jobs in healthcare.
'Served My Country'
Veterans, he said, think: "I served my country and provided all this, and come back and what do I have now? Maybe a lot of bad memories that I don't want and skills that nobody recognizes.''
With veterans' unemployment rising, President Barack Obama is scheduled Friday to visit Washington's Navy Yard to announce initiatives to prepare vets for civilian jobs.
In the tight job market, recent veterans say that they're passed over for jobs not because they are unqualified, but because they lack required credentials, a formal education or a way to describe their military skills that employers understand.
"I compare myself to civilians I know and I have had leadership opportunities -- making the hard choice -- that I don't see in my civilian counterparts,'' said David Nawrocki, a 30-year-old staff sergeant.
He ran an ammunition supply point in Afghanistan and, as a logistics coordinator in Washington, worked out ways to save the Army more than $1 million earlier this year.
"I don't know how to translate it into civilian terms,'' said Nawrocki, who joined the Army at 17 and hasn't finished college.
He has applied for 800 jobs since February and has had just one interview. His Army job in Washington ended this summer.
More than a dozen government programs aim to tackle veteran unemployment through job search courses, career centers, hiring fairs and grants for states and local agencies.
But many former servicemen say what they really need is a waiver from the often lengthy training process required to get jobs for which they are already effectively qualified.
The GI bill and some Pentagon programs will reimburse vets for training and certification exams, but the training itself can last weeks to several years.
"They tell us, 'we give you training you can use in the real world,''' said Bachler. "Really? It's real world training but the real world won't take it.''
According to the Defense Department, 88 percent of military jobs have "direct civilian counterparts.'' But most states require veterans to retrain before they can take similar civilian positions.
According to the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians, paramedic training takes about 18 months. Air traffic controllers must retrain for one to two months according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
"They come back from doing 24/7 medic work and can't even drive an ambulance,'' said Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat who is chairwoman of the Veteran Affairs Committee.
Bills In Congress
Murray proposed a bill in May to ease licensing requirements for veterans in five military jobs with civilian equivalents. U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller proposed another, which focuses on five to 10 positions.
Nichols, the former chief of staff at VETS, is skeptical.
"They have studied those 10 MOS's since I was in there 10 years ago,'' said Nichols, using the acronym for "military occupational specialty.''
One of the biggest hurdles to helping veterans is the abundance of government agencies that aim to do it, he said. Three federal departments handle veterans' issues, and states set most of their own licensing requirements.
But six states have passed laws making it easier for veterans to get licenses, according to the House of Representatives Veterans Affairs Committee.
LaborHilda Solis says her department is doing its part.
"We're committed to doing all that we can to help returning service members navigate their way through the difficult transition into the civilian work force,'' she said in an email.
She pointed to a new Labor program offering free certification training for young veterans. The Veterans Affairs and Defense departments offer others.
But the Pentagon acknowledges that it needs to do more.
Ed Kringer, director of the Pentagon's State Liaison & Educational Opportunity Office, says the department is conducting a "wholesale review'' of employment for people leaving the military.
"We have heard the concerns and are actively engaged in addressing them,'' Kringer said.
Bachler thinks that the U.S. military should give civilian licensing tests to all recruits at the close of training, as the British Armed Forces do.
In Virginia, a frustrated Sergeant Nawrocki is starting an online training course in logistics -- even though he has 13 years' experience.
"I know I can do the job, but I know employers don't understand that and want to see the certification,'' he said.
(Editing by Warren Strobel and Vicki Allen.)
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