NASHVILLE — America's military veterans rate as heroes willing to put their lives on the line during wartime, but at home they face a higher-than-average unemployment rate and a tough time transferring the skills they learn in the service to the private sector. • And with more veterans seeking jobs after returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — and federal government efforts to slim down the military — the job outlook doesn't look great. On the bright side, though, veterans have access to a number of programs to help them shift into the civilian work force.
Employers have a split personality about hiring veterans, employment experts say. Some bosses see veterans as plum picks because of their proven leadership skills. However, others remain reluctant to hire, fearing that former soldiers may be too rigid and unable to adapt or that they may have unwanted baggage, including physical or mental problems.
"The employers are worrying that they're hiring people that have baggage from being in combat operations, but the military is so much more than hunters and killers," said Harold Riggins, transition services manager with the Army Career and Alumni Program at Fort Campbell, Ky., which helps soldiers prepare for civilian jobs.
Nationwide, overall unemployment fell to 9 percent for January. But joblessness rose to 15.2 percent for veterans in service since 2001 and to 9.9 percent for all veterans older than 18.
Veterans with disabilities face unique issues. Often, employers considering hiring them have to make special accommodations. On average, the greater the severity of the disability, the lower the proportion employed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
One example of an adjustment would be allowing a flexible workday for a veteran with a back injury unable to sit in a chair for long periods of time, said J. Michael Haynie, assistant professor of entrepreneurship and national executive director of veterans outreach programs at Syracuse University.
At a recent RecruitMilitary job fair at LP Field in Nashville, Navy veteran Paul Burke chatted with Metro Police recruiters about how to join the police force. He spent more than four years in the Navy in the '90s and remains a reservist.
Many veterans seek civilian work in security, information technology or as mechanics, job experts say, while others pursue contract work for the military or with the U.S. Department of Defense. Often, the path to a job involves learning new skills.
Unemployed for more than a year, veteran Grant Davis completed a weatherization-technician training program through Operation Stand Down Nashville, a veterans services group. He is still seeking a job.
The two-week "Mission Green" class is held at Tennessee State University, with followup at the Fort Campbell Army post. Additional phases will involve training veterans to become energy auditors and master technicians, said Renee Bobb, assistant employment coordinator with Operation Stand Down.
"I'm knocking on all doors and I'm open to anything and trying everything to get back to work," says Davis, who has experience as a framer and electrician.
One challenge veterans face is fine-tuning their resume to weed out military lingo that civilian employers won't understand.
"What we have to do is really take the boots out of the resume, which means tailoring the resume to make sure that anybody — whether they've served in the military or not — can understand the skill sets of that particular vet," Bobb said.
In addition to programs that help veterans find jobs with existing companies, others hope to create more veteran-owned businesses.
Several states have enacted new laws giving certain preferences to disabled veterans who want to start a business.
John Alexander of the Tennessee Career Center said the typical veteran's work ethic and punctuality impress most bosses. "Employers recognize it, but part of the problem is that there's not as many openings," he said.