Veterans facing higher unemployment rate

Posted Monday, Jul. 14, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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Job fair

North Texas LEAD is sponsoring free workshops and a job fair at Tarrant County College's Trinity East campus for veterans seeking employment. The event is from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on July 19.

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Will someone hire Juan Camarena?

The former Marine captain, a Mansfield High graduate who had worked his way up from private and was sent by the military to Texas A&M University for his bachelor's degree, thought finding a management position after 18 years in uniform would be a breeze.

He had been an aide to a general, managed military police officers, was an executive officer at Quantico, Va., and saw duty in Iraq.

But it's been two years of frustration.

Camarena’s prospects are hampered by his inability to leave the region because of family commitments. Law enforcement jobs are out because he is unable to stand for eight straight hours due to service-related injuries, although a full shift allowing him to stand and walk and sit for 10 hours is no problem, he says.

When he applied for a local job with a national food-processing company, its recruiters were so impressed with the 38-year-old ex-Marine, who exudes an easy confidence and open manner, that they offered him a more senior position - in Minnesota. But they inexplicably would not consider him for the opening in Tarrant County, he said.

At a time when the nation’s employment picture is improving, the hiring of vets lags, according to the Department of Labor’s statistics branch.

Last year, the unemployment rate for Gulf War II-era veterans, those who served after 9/11 during the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, was 9 percent, compared with 7.2 percent for non-veterans, according to a March study by the Bureau of Labor of Statistics.

“This doesn’t jibe because they are twice as educated,” said Sal Adamski of Workforce Solutions of Tarrant County, comparing the academic achievement of veterans compared with non-veterans.

Hiring programs

In recent years, such well-known corporations as Hilton Worldwide, AT&T, GE, CSX and JP Morgan Chase, among others, have announced hiring programs for vets, some have even set goals. Chase and 10 other companies launched a program four years ago to engage 100,000 vets by 2020. There are now 165 companies involved, and they’ve hired 142,000 through March. Of those, 7,200 were recruited by Chase, 1,589 in Texas alone.

For some companies, vets can be a match made in heaven:

They have experience working as part of a team among heavy machinery in a sometimes dangerous, always rules-based, environment, say Caleb Roberson and John Wesley, recruiters for Fort Worth-based BNSF Railway. The two, who both have firsthand military experience themselves, work full-time to identify veterans as prospective employees.

“We speak the same language,” Wesley said.

The railroad’s goal is to have 25 percent of new hires to be vets. In 2013, vet hiring hit 26 percent, the recruiters said.

Erica Stigall was managing a sporting goods store in Memphis while attending college, and heard through a friend that BNSF was hiring. An air traffic controller in the Mississippi National Guard, who had a 12-month tour in Kuwait under her belt, Stigall became a train dispatcher based in San Bernadino, Calif., following a four-month course at Tarrant County College.

“Just about everyone was previously an air traffic controller,” Stigall said of fellow BNSF dispatchers, speaking hours before leaving for a year-long deployment with the Guard.

A flight controller’s transition to such railroad work is easy to grasp. But Wesley and Roberson say they have to convince enlisted men trained in, say, infantry specialties that their experience, if not their skills, can carry over to BNSF. They’d hear: “I’m a mortar man. What can I do at a railroad?”

The recruiters disabuse them of self-assessed limitations, explaining that their ability to work in a team in stressful situations, often in harsh weather with suddenly changing schedules, is a real asset that many candidates with civilian backgrounds lack.

The hard part is finding veterans willing to do maintenance work in isolated places like Glendive, Mont., they said.

A good fit

J.P. Morgan Chase has found veterans a good fit, and is aiming its recruitment efforts at enlisted men, based on the belief that majors, colonels and generals have better job prospects, says Maureen Casey, managing director of the bank’s Office of Military and Veterans Affairs. About 85 percent of vet hires are from the enlisted ranks, she said.

Casey said they generally have skills that an organization like Chase simply can’t teach: quick thinking, cultural adaptability, flexibility. Such people have been placed at all levels of the organization, through all lines of business, she said.

Some employers find shaking the bushes for vets just too difficult.

A 2012 study by the consulting firm, McKinsey & Co., found 60 percent of companies say that translating military skills and experiences to civilian roles to be a challenge in hiring, 25 percent say they’re overwhelmed by vet hiring resources and don’t know where to start, and 55 percent cited concerns over post-traumatic stress disorder - even though only a fifth of post-9/11 veterans are afflicted.

On the other hand, some vets hurt their own prospects by not taking personal credit for accomplishments - since they are trained to emphasize the team - and are unaccustomed to the language of the business world, McKinsey found.

Hiding service

Women in particular downplay their service, says Kim Olsen, a retired Air Force pilot who is CEO of Grace After Fire, a women vets support association. Some even conceal their military experience and don’t take advantage of assistance programs because they do not self-identify as vets, Olsen said.

“They keep it in check,” she said.

“Why?” she asked. “Because the military doesn’t embrace your feminine qualities. Most women are polarized away from what they did in the military. And then there are employers who, because of all the media attention, believe women vets were sexually traumatized in the service and might go postal or commit suicide. Last year was the year of sexual trauma.”

As a result, their unemployment rate was 9.6 percent, compared with 8.8 for male veterans last year.

Some vets are luckier than others.

Ralph Saunders, 37, a former airman who left the service in 2005, was trying to nab an internship with BNSF after finishing a degree, but instead was offered a full-time contract position, then brought on board full-time.

It wasn’t a straight line from service to railroad for Saunders, who has had a roller-coaster ride of career changes.

Saunders had been a lab technician, a bank manager, an academic counselor at a for-profit university, a part-time driver for Enterprise, and, after getting an MBA, the co-owner with his wife of a daycare center. He had never heard of BNSF until he asked a professor about internship opportunities.

The railroad relocated his family to Fort Worth from Lawton, Okla..

“Being a veteran helped,” he added.

‘All about attitude’

In a new housing development in Keller, under a scorching North Texas sun, John Murphy is supervising crews pouring concrete slabs. For the 52-year-old former Army colonel with 21 years’ service, it’s a far cry from his previous work, much of it in military intelligence, including a long stint in Saddam Hussein’s hometown, Tikrit, Iraq.

A two-year job doing database management and analysis for a defense firm came to a halt when the contract ended six months ago. And because of his family situation, as in Camarena’s case, Murphy says he can’t leave the area. And like Camarena, he says that he hasn’t mastered the use of application buzz words to get his resume selected by HR computer programs.

Still trying to get back into his field, Murphy sent out more than 300 applications. All were rejected.

“It was very frustrating,” said Murphy, who nonetheless singled out a veterans specialist at the Texas Workforce Commission for understanding his situation and helping find the right fit. “Then the men’s pastor at my church called and said, ‘I've got a job for you.’”

A fellow congregant needed a concrete subcontractor and basically helped the vet get on his feet. Luckily, Murphy had grown up in his family’s Mineral Wells construction business and already knew the trade.

“You can make anything work,” Murphy said. “You can make flipping burgers work. It’s all about attitude.”

Barry Shlachter, 817-390-7718 Twitter: @bshlachter

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