Strictly Business: Keep vets in mind when hiring

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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Memorial Day is a day to remember our war dead, and we do a good job of that in Vancouver with an annual service at the Vancouver Barracks and other remembrances. It's also a good time to consider the challenges facing veterans returning home from military service to face the challenge of finding a job.

Not surprisingly, finding work is no easy task for today's vets. Some entered the military shortly after high school and have little or no work experience. Many realize they need more education or specialized training to land a job, but have little money for living costs while attending school. And some struggle to recover from the emotional or physical traumas of combat service.

Social service agencies and law enforcement agencies see the veterans who don't land on their feet when they land in homeless shelters or on the street, or when they seek out emergency services.

A few years ago, employment assistance workers in the WorkSource program, a joint venture of the state and local agencies, were seeing many Vietnam veterans in need of help, says Sam Mitchell of WorkSource, a disabled veteran outreach program representative for Cowlitz and Wahkiakum counties. Vietnam-era veterans still come in for help, Mitchell says, but they're increasingly joined by much younger veterans.

The good news these days is that the armed services are spending more time preparing departing military personnel for job-seeking challenges, says Michael Benko, local veterans employment representative at WorkSource in Vancouver. The Department of Veterans Affairs offers financial assistance for education to older veterans who don't qualify for other programs. Although that program is winding down, it's allowed about 90 unemployed vets to enroll in Clark College, says Mike Gibson, a veterans program specialist at Clark.

Clark has some 700 veterans enrolled, including about 500 using GI benefits. The GI Bill payment for education is $1,564 per month, and there's little left over for living expenses after students pay for tuition, books, and supplies.

Benko is comforted by the strong community support for veterans, especially those looking for work. Earlier this month, 62 local employers participated in a job fair for veterans -- a far larger employer turnout, Benko says, than he would see for a general job fair.

Often left unspoken, though, is a perception that today's veterans are wounded warriors who might have trouble fitting into the workplace. Benko addresses that perception head-on. Even it a veteran suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, "it doesn't mean they can't perform well on job." It means, he said, that at times "there might need to be some understanding by the employer."

That's something for all of us to remember this Memorial Day weekend as we reflect on our war dead and thank those who have returned home safely.

Gordon Oliver is The Columbian's business editor. 360-735-4699, http://twitter.com/col_goliver; http://www.columbian.com/weblogs/strictly-business, or gordon.oliver@columbian.com