USA Today: National Guard members battle in job market

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By Chris Kenning, The (Louisville) Courier-Journal

DOGGETTE

1st Lt. David Doggette

LOUISVILLE (October 23. 2012) – More than nine months after returning from a second deployment to Iraq, Kentucky National Guard Lt. David Doggette has been struggling to translate his broad military experience — ranging from driving a tank to leading a platoon — into a good civilian job.

(NOTE: If you would like more information on the Employer Support to the Guard and Reserve (ESGR) and the Employment Initiative Program, please contact Phil Miller at 502-607-1532 or Tim Stinnett at 502-607-6055.)

Doggette, a 30-year-old from Park City, Ky., who wants a career in safety management, said finding a job in the tight labor market is made more difficult by his long deployments away from the workforce — and the possibility of more to come.

“Everybody’s been very quick to thank me for my service, and nobody’s saying outright they’re worried about (future) deployments, but it’s definitely an undercurrent,” he said.

Unemployment for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan remains a problem, but it is even more of an issue for National Guard members who juggle jobs and repeated deployments.

Although still higher than the overall jobless rate of 7.8%, the unemployment rate for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan dropped to 9.7% in September, down from 11.7% a year earlier, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Kentucky Guard’s “citizen soldiers” — who, unlike former active-duty troops, face the added difficulty of having to hold down jobs while being deployed overseas for what is often a year at a time — had a jobless rate last month of 16.3%, according to Guard figures.

Ross Cohen, senior director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Hiring our Heroes program, which has held about 100 job fairs, said there’s an array of new programs to help.

They range from Guard outreach directly to employers to job fairs put on by veterans groups, politicians and local workforce agencies.

One problem being addressed is showing vets how to bridge a “communication gap” as they try to translate their military skills into experience that employers can see will make them good employees.

Employers “need to know that you also learn to work well in teams, give and take orders, (can) be accountable for millions of dollars of equipment and respond to changing circumstances,” Cohen said.

Ted Daywalt, president of the Georgia-based group VetJobs, who testified about the issue before Congress earlier this year, said it’s a national problem. While recent veterans are increasingly finding work, National Guard members — whose part-time role differs from full-time, active-duty troops, but who in the past decade have been mobilized at record levels — have faced steeper challenges.

Though few will openly admit it, “a lot of employers are reluctant to hire them,” said Daywalt, noting that many will volunteer for another deployment to help pay bills at home. “We get thousands of calls a month, and easily 40 to 50% of them are in the National Guard.”

Though partly a function of a recovering economy, the state is also “connecting more veterans with jobs,” said Bill Riggs, Deputy Secretary of Kentucky’s Education and Workforce Development Cabinet, who oversees the “Hiring Kentucky Heroes” jobs program.

Still, with an estimated 3,000 unemployed post-9/11 veterans in Kentucky, Riggs said “there’s still more work to be done.” Indiana’s National Guard says its unemployment rate is 10.5 percent.

Finding work for vets

With the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq winding down and bringing an expected 1 million-plus veterans into the workforce by 2016, the issue of veteran unemployment has loomed large nationally.

Doggette2

1st Lt. David Doggette trains with his unit prior to deploying to Iraq in 2010. (photo submitted)

Both President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney have said veteran jobs is a top priority, with Romney encouraging states to create a standardized way to recognize military training credentials, an idea that is also part of a jobs bill pending in Congress.

Obama has helped enact tax credits to encourage companies to hire vets, while overhauling post-service training. According to the White House, more than 125,000 service members and military spouses have been hired or trained in the last year through a program called Joining Forces.

In June, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear enacted a statewide jobs program for vets, who are now getting help translating military experience into marketable civilian skills, developing their resumes and conducting practice job interviews.

State officials could not immediately provide figures on how many vets have been helped.

Ross Cohen, senior director for the U.S. Chamber’s “Hiring our Heroes” program, which has held about 100 job fairs, including the Louisville event that is expected to draw 300 jobless vets, said there’s an array of new programs to help.

That ranges from Guard outreach directly to employers to job fairs put on by veterans groups, politicians and local workforce agencies.

One problem they are addressing is showing vets how to bridge a “communication gap” as they try to translate their military skills into experience that employers can see will make them good employees.

Employers “need to know that you also learn to work well in teams, give and take orders, (can) be accountable for millions of dollars of equipment and respond to changing circumstances,” he said.

Kentucky National Air Guard member Jacob Fuller, 22, of Lexington, who recently landed a job as an airport firefighter in northern Kentucky, says he was alerted to the opening through the Kentucky Guard’s employment program.

And he said he capitalized on his military firefighter training and beat out a more than 100 other applicants, he said.

“I ended up getting really lucky,” he said. “I still know a decent number of people who are still unemployed, or can only find part time or low-level jobs.”

Ted Daywalt, president of the Georgia-based group VetJobs, who testified about the issue before Congress earlier this year, said it’s a national problem. While recent veterans are increasingly finding work, National Guard soldiers — whose part-time role differs from full-time, active-duty soldiers, but who in the past decde have been mobilized at record levels — have faced steeper challenges.

Many of the nearly more than 8,000 people in the Kentucky Army National Guard and the Air National Guard, for example, have served at least three, and as many as five, deployments — leaving them away from the workforce for years.

Guard members have job protections while they are serving, but those don’t protect them when factories are shuttered or small contracting businesses dry up during a recession. And when they return, younger soldiers especially are fighting for jobs with less work experience.

Though few will openly admit it, “a lot of employers are reluctant to hire them,” said Daywalt, noting that many will volunteer for another activation deployment to help pay bills at home. “We get thousands of calls a month, and easily 40 to 50 percent of them are in the National Guard.”

Finding a good job has been a challenge for Kentucky National Guard Specialist Matthew Dornbusch, of Walton, Ky., who returned in June from a deployment to Iraq and Kuwait.

“It’s hard returning from overseas” to find good jobs scarce, he said, adding that most of what’s available “seems like you’re either making $8 an hour or you need a college degree.”

Selling your worth

Dornbusch said he initially struggled with the prospect of low-paying jobs after a deployment during which he felt that his soldiering duties, including being a mechanic to writing public information stories, were infused with a larger meaning.

“You get a job offer at a gas station attendant making $7.50 an hour, you think, ‘I just came from a combat zone. I feel like I’m worth more that,’” he said.

Now married, with a child on the way, he’s pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Geographic Information Systems at Northern Kentucky University — and continues to look for a good job, including by going to state veterans hiring fairs.

“A lot of us have so much experience, you’ve just got to get that across,” he said.

Some guard families are hoping that the winding down of the wars may presage fewer deployments, which would ease the burdens to employment.

But Daywalt said planned reductions in active-duty troop strength could keep demand for fill-in guard units high for the near future.

Additionally, U.S. Army chief of staff Gen. Ray Odierno said this summer that guard and reservists would shift next year from previous peacetime training blocks of two weeks a year to up to seven weeks to increase readiness.

That could present further employment barriers, but it’s still far less time than soldiers have been asked to give during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Despite the challenges, Daywalt said he’s encouraged that overall veteran unemployment figures are “going in the right direction” and that “everyone is trying to figure out how to help these people.”

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