Tackling the task of finding jobs for 'citizen soldiers'
WASHINGTON - They serve their country for more than a year in Iraq's intense heat or Afghanistan's bone-chilling cold. They often learn or hone skills during their military service that can be applied to civilian work. And they return home expecting open doors.
But for many of the nation's "citizen soldiers" -- reservists and members of deployed National Guard units -- arriving back home is a bitter disappointment. Not only do they have trouble finding good jobs in the slow economy, but some have trouble convincing potential employers that their service is a plus, rather than a minus.
In Missouri, about 9,000 members of the Army and Air Force National Guard have been deployed over the last decade. While the exact jobless numbers are hard to come by, "upward of 12 to 15 percent" of those citizen soldiers are unemployed, says the Missouri National Guard's adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Stephen L. Danner.
"Our difficulties are with deployed soldiers and airmen coming home who do not have a ready job available," Danner said Tuesday. "We know [joblessness] has been as high as 30 percent in several of our units."
Danner commented during a four-site video conference call Tuesday that included U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a Missouri state official, representatives of the employer support program, and representatives of several Missouri firms. The goal was to agree on ways to improve hiring and to explore whether changes are needed in federal law.
"I want to make sure that the focus and priority is on our veterans," McCaskill told the group. She wants more tools to help "those Guard and Reservists who have switched from what used to be just a strategic implementation to an operational capacity in our military" during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
The job problem is especially tough for younger Guard members who have been deployed two or more times. Some of them have missed key years and return home with major challenges in identifying their future careers, getting the necessary skills and finding the right job. As U.S. military operations wind down in Iraq later this year, there will be an even greater need for training and job placement. The problem tends to be even more challenging to Guard members returning to rural communities, which are often far from the job openings and are far from the military support centers in urban areas.
McCaskill, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is among the sponsors of a bill to help veterans find work by providing broader job skills training for all service members returning home and by creating a new direct federal hiring authority so that more have jobs waiting for them. It would also require the federal labor, defense and veterans departments to collaborate to dismantle barriers between military training and civilian licensure or credentialing for some specialties.
Nationwide, jobless rates for members of some Army National Guard units that recently returned from deployment are as high as 45 percent, according to testimony by Marshall Hanson of the Reserve Officers Association. For veterans between the ages of 20 and 24, the rate was about 27 percent. (Overall, the unemployment rate for vets who left the military after 2001 was about 12 percent.)
Does discrimination play a factor in the jobless rate? Tracy Beckette, a retired brigadier general who heads the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR) program in Missouri, said the ESGR handles numerous cases involving possible discrimination against returning Guard and Reserve members.
"On a national basis, about 26,000 inquiries have been made" by vets who complain of discrimination or feel their workplace has not respected rules requiring that their previous jobs have been held for them, he said.
"But in Missouri, our caseload has begun to decrease because of the outreach programs we have," Beckette said, adding that the state ESGR's "resolution rate for cases that are brought to our attention is just over five days -- well below the [national] standard."
However, Beckette added: "We are beginning to see instances where folks are applying for jobs and it is being held against them that they are in the Guard or Reserve. No one [yet] has filed as case, but we are hearing this anecdotally." In some cases, potential employers express fears that the Guard members might be deployed again.
The state of Missouri is also helping out. John Hose, assistant director of the state education department's Veteran Education and Training Section in St. Louis, told the conference-call meeting that "we have close to 300 active on-job training and apprenticeship programs. They have a very good success rate with maintaining that person in the job after their training."
Missouri is ahead of many states in establishing a program, called Show Me Heroes, which coordinates among businesses and veterans groups to help the state's veterans "reconnect with meaningful careers." So far, about 1,500 firms in the state have signed a pledge to give military veterans and Guard and Reserve members high consideration for filling jobs.
During the conference call, one suggestion discussed was the idea of "reverse boot camps" to help returning Guard members and reservists transition back to civilian life; another idea was to get a head start by asking deployed Guard members to start writing their resumes before returning home; and another was to convince more employers to offer on-the-job training to vets.
McCaskill said she liked the reverse boot camp idea, "teaching them how to match up the skills they got in the military with the job availability. That's something I think that our employers want to cooperate with."
Among the Missouri businesses honored for hiring veterans -- some of which were represented at this week's meeting -- are Colt Safety (St. Louis), the Mid-America Kidney Stone Association (Kansas City), Ameren Missouri, Express Scripts (St. Louis) and Enterprise Corp. (St. Louis).
"It's not only jobs," said Danner. "There are jobs out there but [Guard members] are not necessarily trained for the jobs that are available. So they need more on-the-job training."
Contact Beacon Washington correspondent Robert Koenig.