Lawmakers attempt to fix soaring veteran unemployment rates

One fix: Allow licensing boards to recognize military training
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Photo: Source: U.S. Census Bureau, License: N/A

The unemployment rate for veterans who served on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces at any time since September 2001 — a group referred to as Gulf War-era II veterans — was 12.1 percent in 2011, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in March. The jobless rate for all veterans was 8.3 percent.

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The effects of the deep recession afflicting the U.S. over the past few years have left millions of people without jobs. A disproportionate share of recent veterans is included in those millions.

According to the U.S. Dept. of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, male veterans ages 18 to 24 who served during the Gulf War Era II had an unemployment rate of 29.1 percent in 2011, significantly higher than the 17.6 percent for young male nonveterans.

Why such a disparity? No single answer exists.

A weak job market in the aftermath of the Great Recession finds employers filling positions with more educated workers. Since young veterans typically forego college
and join the military right out of high school, decreasing their chances for finding
employment in today’s weak job market.

Some employers may be reluctant to hire members of the National Guard or Reserve because they could be called to duty with little notice.

In addition, employers and young veterans may not know how to translate military experience, training and skills into the civilian job market. Ironically, while the government offers programs for veterans to help them find education, training and employment opportunities, it also creates hurdles for that transition.

“For these young people coming back, the problem is their MOS (military operation specialty) is in the service — private-sector industries and businesses don’t accept their military training in those positions due to federal mandates that require licensing, training and testing to get certain types of licenses, like a CDL,” says Henry Desrosiers, director of Veterans Affairs for Carbon County, Jim Thorpe. “That means that these young men and women have to spend cash, which they don’t have, to get certifications.”

U.S. Army veteran Vincent Costa, like many others, ran directly into a major roadblock. Despite serving two tours overseas in Iraq and gaining six years of experience driving heavy machinery equipment, Vince hit major roadblocks when he entered the civilian workforce because of the lengthy requirements it took for him to obtain his commercial driver’s license.

Desrosiers also knows first-hand the redundancy faced by military personnel trying to enter the private sector. “I was a law enforcement specialist in the Air Force, security law enforcement,” he says. “When I got out, I became a police officer. Did they take any of my training? No. I had to go to the municipal police academy to get the state requirements. For what I did in the military I was better trained than for what I did when I went through
the policy academy. Requirements are different in the private sector compared to the military and the private sector doesn’t honor the military standards.”

One local politician hopes to reduce that obstacle at the state level. Rep. Doyle Heffley(R-Carbon) introduced House Bill 2321, a bill which would require state licensing agencies and boards to consider veteran service, education, training or experience when issuing licenses and certifications.

“For example, morticians are something that in the military they use,” says Heffley. “Obviously, if somebody comes back into the private sector, they have already received a lot of that training and they already have experience with the military in this. This (bill) would state that state license boards would have to consider that training. Not only have they received the training, but in most cases they have had hands-on experience with the training that they received.”

Heffley, a former human resources employee in the trucking industry, helped to fill a shortage of experienced truck drivers by changing a company policy that didn’t recognize military training and experience. “If you had somebody coming back from overseas and maybe they drove a truck in the military and they came back here, they would still have to go get their license,” says Heffley. “Some companies would require a year’s experience. For three years they would have driven a truck in the military, but this company didn’t recognize that. It was more or less a technicality. I worked with the company to change that policy to say that if they passed all the other criteria, when it came to the experience criteria, we would consider military time as long as they presented their DD214 (proof of service).”

Heffley took that understanding of a fluke in the system with him to Harrisburg. HB2312 was approved unanimously through the House and awaits approval by the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee.

“It will be meaningful legislation, a common-sense thing that will really help people,” says Heffley. “That’s going to help out veterans across the board.”

Wilkes-Barre’s Northeastern Pennsylvania Veterans Multicare Alliance (NEPAVMA) also works to help veterans. The Alliance is a nonprofit, all-volunteer service organization of veterans dedicated to helping veterans and their families navigate through government and community-based provider systems to obtain information, benefits and services. It recently partnered with the Pennsylvania Office of Veterans Affairs, Dept. of Military and Veteran Affairs to host a Veterans Employment Bootcamp on May 31 at King’s College.
In addition to panels and information on VA health care and GI Bill benefits, the event featured sessions designed to help veterans return to civilian employment.

“When it comes to technical things, for example, if you are an electronics technician, you have a lot of skills that are transferrable in the private sector,” says Karla Porter, NEPAVMA’s vice president and a U.S. Air Force veteran.

“There are a lot of jobs that are there. On the front line, whether they are artillery or infantry, tell me where you drive a tank in the civilian world? Where are you a sniper in the civilian world? These are not positions where we have much of an equivalent.”
Many young veterans and employers may not see an application for such training, but the many soft skills practiced in the military can benefit civilian employers.

“The (soft) skills that you learn are more in the area of being able to carry out duties; learn information quickly and apply it immediately; leadership skills; organizational skills; team skills; things like that,” says Porter. “Employers want those skills, but employers typically want some other kinds of skills to go with that. You might have great leadership skills, but if you don’t know a particular industry, it’s difficult to fit you in somewhere.”
Fitting in without skills or training presents a lofty hurdle for many young veterans in an economy where even skilled workers are unemployed.
“However, the other skills that veterans develop, like the ability to work seamlessly in a team, the ability to get the job done, the ability to take orders, the ability to carry out a mission—these are highly valued by employers, often more than the technical aspects,” says Porter. “In recruitment we always say, ‘Hire for the will and train for the skill.’ In other words, hire the right fit and train him for what you want —but get the right person in the job.”

Porter believes veterans have proven those skills in very demanding circumstances.