Veterans find mixed reactions as they look to rejoin work force
“They have similar characteristics to sell. The labor market doesn’t have the number of jobs to absorb workers with the same demographic and skill level.” Harlen Henegar, the Louisiana Workforce Commission’s veterans employment representative
Ryan Newman was at the Hiring Our Heroes job fair at the RiverCenter last week for one reason.
“I’m looking for work,” said Newman, who lives in Baton Rouge. “I’ve been unemployed for two months and it is tough.”
Newman served in the Navy for less than a year before he was discharged. Now, he’s trying to re-enter the job market. Newman was at the job fair, part of a nationwide series sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the NFL Players Association, looking for opportunities.
“I want something hands-on,” said Newman, who studied electrical engineering while he was in the Navy.
One of the booths where Newman dropped off his résumé was Trinity Marine Products.
Bailee Comeaux, a human relations manager at Trinity, said while the company didn’t currently need electrical engineers, Newman might be a good candidate for training in other departments that had openings.
“We like to hire veterans for their leadership skills,” Comeaux said.
Many hiring managers feel the same way as Comeaux. Veterans are prized as potential employees because of their calm under pressure, can-do attitudes, professionalism and punctuality.
The most recent numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that in August, the overall unemployment rate for veterans was 6.6 percent, better than the 8.1 percent unemployment rate for the work force as a whole. Historically, veteran unemployment has always been lower than the overall national average.
But the numbers aren’t so rosy for younger veterans and those who served in the military since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, like Newman. The BLS says the unemployment rate for veterans between the ages of 18 and 24 was 19.9 percent in August. That’s significantly worse than the overall national unemployment rate for the 18- to 24-age category of 15.6 percent.
For veterans of the post-9/11 military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, the unemployment rate was 10.9 percent in August.
Ted Daywalt, president and CEO of VetJobs, a leading military job board partially owned by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said the unemployment figures for younger veterans are skewed by the Department of Defense call-up policy for those serving in the reserves and National Guard. Before 2007, those serving in the National Guard or reserves could serve no more than 24 months total in Afghanistan or Iraq. The new policy now allows for units to be mobilized for up to 24 consecutive months at a time. In many cases, people serving in the reserves have spent two years overseas, been demobilized for a year, then called back for another two-year tour.
The prospect of losing current or potential workers for up to two years at a time has soured employers on hiring reservists, Daywalt said.
“As soon as it is announced a brigade is being called up, you get employers laying off reservists and guardsmen under the guise that it is necessary because of the recession,” Daywalt said. In some cases, National Guard units with unemployment rates of 50 percent or more have been sent to Afghanistan and Iraq.
Even if they aren’t members of the reserves, Harlen Henegar, the Louisiana Workforce Commission’s veterans employment representative, said younger veterans have more obstacles toward re-entering the job market. For one, some employers are simply frightened to hire people with combat experience. Henegar said he often tells veterans to stress the non-combat aspects of their time in the military.
Another factor is that most post-9/11 veterans are all about the same age, have about the same education and about the same work experience.
“The have similar characteristics to sell,” Henegar said. “The labor market doesn’t have the number of jobs to absorb workers with the same demographic and skill level.”
And the industries that traditionally provided good-paying jobs to returning combat veterans, such as construction and shipbuilding, were among the hardest hit by the national recession, he said.
Helping veterans find jobs is one of the reasons that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce started holding Hiring Our Heroes job fairs in March 2011. The business lobby said to date more than 10,400 veterans and their spouses have gotten work through the nearly 280 fairs.
Kim Morton, a chamber spokeswoman, said the organization has teamed with Capital One for a campaign to get 500,000 veterans hired by the end of 2014. “We’re making good headway on this,” she said. “As the word of these fairs has spread, we’re hearing about more opportunities.”
At the RiverCenter, about 70 employers had signed up for the fair, including national firms such as Verizon and Union Pacific and well-known local employers like Associated Grocers, Lafayette General Hospital and Turner Industries.
Lee Lusker, of Denham Springs, was one of the veterans who attended the fair. Lusker spent 21 years in the Army, leaving with the rank of sergeant first class. About three months ago, he was laid off from his information technology job. Lusker was at the fair, looking for IT work locally, because he was trying to avoid leaving the state to take a job. Lusker said the potential employers he has talked to find it a plus that he is a veteran.
“It’s kind of like I have a star on me,” he said.
But Nicole Bayles, of Baton Rouge, said she feels that her military service has scared off some employers. Bayles served in the Navy for two months, before she was medically discharged. Now, she’s looking for jobs in customer service.
Bayles said she believes employers think someone who was in the military wouldn’t be good with customers, so she was pleased to get a chance to talk to companies like Toys R Us.
“It’s good that they set this up to help people find work,” she said.
Sam Sharp, of Metairie, spent 5½ years of active duty in the Army and served in Afghanistan and Iraq. A sergeant, he spent the past two years in the reserves. Sharp said he’s been looking for work for the past two months.
“I’m looking to find a job that pays me enough so my wife can be in school,” he said. His wife is studying nursing at the LSU Health Science Center. Sharp said there are jobs out there, but not quality jobs.
“You can’t support a family on $7.75 an hour at Wendy’s,” he said.
Sharp said veterans have one big advantage over their civilian counterparts in the search for a good job.
“We’re used to working,” he said. “We don’t try and take the easy way out of a job.”
Editor’s Note: This story was changed Oct. 1, 2012, to reflect the correct name for the Hiring Our Heroes job fair.