Honors abounded in the past week for service to country, but veterans adjusting to life after the military still face significant challenges in finding a job — from figuring out how to apply skills learned in the service to employer perceptions about post traumatic stress.
Timothy Rockefeller, a veteran services representative at the Connecticut labor department who works to connect employers and veterans, said leaving the military is a whirlwind of a few days, and there is a lot of information given about support services in a short period of time.
The transition to civilian life is jarring enough but figuring out where to go to get help in finding a job can be just as tough, said Rockefeller, who was a combat marine in Afghanistan in 2004.
“It can be overwhelming,” Rockefeller said, trying to navigate the myriad of state and federal programs designed to help veterans find employment.
About 200,000 in U.S. military service transition to civilian life each year, according to federal government statistics. And of those, just one-in-four has a job lined up, the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington D.C., found in a 2019 study.
And while experts say significant strides have been made by government to help and by businesses in hiring veterans, a 2016 study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation found that 53% of veterans remained unemployed for four months or longer after leaving the military.
Job searches by newly minted veterans are often complicated by the abrupt move from a structured, rank-based organization to one that is not.
In Fairfield, Connecticut, Sean Michael Green, who served in the Marines in the Persian Gulf War in 1991, has started a Connecticut franchise of JDog Junk Removal & Hauling that focuses on hiring veterans.
“The military gives you a real sense of identity, and it’s an identity that you literally wear on your sleeve,” Green, a lawyer and entrepreneur, said. “If you walk onto a military base, and you see other people in uniform, you know not just who you are, but who you are in comparison them.”
“And in the civilian world, it’s all the same,” Green said. “You don’t know who is around you and you don’t know who you are in relation to them. That was disorienting to me.”
‘Haven’t figured it out’
Dustin Grady served in the Navy from 2003 to 2007 as a parachute rigger aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, working with aircraft pilots.
When Grady was discharged, he struggled in the transition, finding that his expertise did not easily transfer to civilian employment, except, if maybe, he went to work for a skydiving company. Grady said he was lucky that his family supported him and helped him find work.
Grady said he enrolled in college under the benefits of the GI Bill, but he didn’t finish his degree.
“It was difficult,” Grady said. “I waited tables. I was a bartender for many years because I didn’t have a career coming out of the Navy. I did every odd job known to man. I did construction. I did concrete. I did roofing. I’m good with my hands so I kind of bounced around from job to job to figure out what I wanted to do.”
Now, at 38, Grady said he’s still trying to find his niche.
“I still haven’t figured it out,” Grady said.
Grady said he doesn’t regret signing up for the military and, in fact, encourages those he meets to do so. But in retrospect, he would have chosen a military career, perhaps IT, that would have better prepared him for civilian employment.
Alongside the search for a career, Grady said has battled addiction since his discharge. But Grady said he’s now been sober for two years.
According to Pew, the research think tank, one-in-five veterans say they struggled with alcohol or substance abuse in the first few years after leaving the military.
Three months ago, Grady was hired by JDog, and he said the workforce of veterans or family members of veterans is comfortable because of shared experience in the military.
“There are a lot of veterans out there who need work and not just the need to work, but respond well to the camaraderie,” JDog’s Green said. “Part of the issue is finding a sense of community, and, to some small extent, we can replicate that by putting veterans together.”
Post traumatic stress an issue
At the state Department of Veteran Affairs, Commissioner Thomas J. Saadi, a veteran and Army reservist, said Connecticut has made significant strides in the last decade to help smooth veteran transition to civilian employment.
Connecticut recognizes skills attained in the military and has divisions in both the state labor and consumer protection departments to evaluate experience. In trades such as plumbing, truck driving, electrical service, military experience can shorten lengths of certification or apprenticeship.
“And be in the workforce sooner rather than later,” Saadi said.
Key to job searches are writing resumes that don’t contain military jargon that won’t be understood by civilian employers, Saadi said.
One challenge that also remains is perceptions around post traumatic stress.
“I have heard this from both guard and reservist personnel as well as former active duty that they feel there is discrimination against those who may have injuries, particularly brain-related, TBI, or who are suffering from post traumatic stress.”
Discrimination based on such injuries or conditions are prohibited by state and federal laws, Saadi said.
“But more often than not, it is very difficult to prove that,” Saadi said. “So what we have to do is educate employers to make sure the public knows — if someone does have a TBI or suffers from post traumatic stress, it doesn’t mean they are not going to be a good, safe, disciplined employee. They apply themselves and, more often than not, they are excellent, dedicated employees.”
Connecticut’s labor department says it assists hundreds of veterans each year with navigating the constellation of employment services geared to veterans. But there is an added challenge — and urgency — in that returning veterans are now much younger than they were prior to 9/11. That means more colleges and universities are involved in the transition.
Sometimes, word-of-mouth is a potent way to learn about services, especially if a veteran can link up with another veteran, the department says.
Ron Catania, a Vietnam War veteran and a veterans representative at the labor department, said one of the biggest hurdles is helping returning veterans to figure out what career they want to pursue.
“Some of them don’t know what road they want to take, and our obligation, and what we try to do is assist them in their plight to find the right career path,” Catania said.