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Veterans Face New Battle in Private-Sector Job Market

"Trying to find a job out of the service is almost as scary as being in the military," said Osvaldo Rivera, who will leave the U.S. Army at the end of March after 21 years of service. "The competition is fierce."

Job applicants register at a military job fair for National Guardsmen, veterans and their families.
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Job applicants register at a military job fair for National Guardsmen, veterans and their families.

The 40-year-old Rivera lives with his wife — who is also a veteran — and two small children in the town of Killeen, Texas, which is home to the Fort Hood military base.

"I graduated high school and had one semester of college, and then joined the Army and had jobs I loved," said Rivera, who was once an Army recruiter. "Now, it's just submit a resume and play the waiting game like a lot of vets have to do."

The soon-to-be-ex-master sergeant is just one of millions of veterans looking for work these days in a job market that's struggling for civilians, as well as those coming out of the military.

The current jobless rate for all U.S. veterans — some 21.8 million of them — stands at around 8.3 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That mirrors the current overall rate of unemployment in the U.S.

A further breakdown reveals pockets of higher unemployment. The jobless rate for vets who served since the9/11 attacks stands at 12.01 percent. That’s a decline from the 14.7 percent at the same time in 2011, but still higher than the overall veteran and nonveteran average.

And for young male veterans ages 18 through 24, the jobless rate is 29.1 percent — much higher than the rate of 17.6 percent for nonvets in the same age group. Nearly 22 percent of female veterans — an estimated 50,000 — who served in Iraq and Afghanistan were unemployed in December 2011, according to statistics.

It’s numbers like these that show the difficulty many vets are having, says Stephen Norred of Vets4Heroes, a group that helps veterans find work in the private sector.

"We need more help, and vets need to be moved to the front of the line when it comes to getting jobs," Norred, a retired naval officer explained. "These people have served their county with three, some times four or more tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan."

There is some help in the works. In November 2011, President Barack Obama signed into law the VOW to Hire Heroes Act, which among other things, offers businesses tax credits for hiring unemployed vets and those with disabilities.

The law also provides online tools to aid in job searches, and the administration has partnered with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the private sector to make it easier to connect veterans with companies that want to hire them.

Even with a top down effort, however, the transition from serving in the U.S. Armed Forces to working in the private sector can be difficult.

Mostly, it's transitioning skills learned in the military to those needed in business, says Mike Starich, president of Orion International, a for-profit recruiting firm that places vets in jobs with major firms such as Intel ,Samsung,Honeywell , and Conocophillips .

"A lot of veterans get great training in the military, whether it's technology or management or leadership skills," Starich explained. "But how a company might use that person when they leave the military becomes a problem for some vets."

A case in point, says Mike Beal of the Milwaukee-based nonprofit Center for Veterans Issues, is the terminology used in the military.

"We had a vet interview for a job and said 'I'm a 0351 Alpha,' " Beal says. "The person sitting across from him had no idea that it meant he was an anti-tank gunner. We use a lot of acronyms in the military and vets need to know how to translate that into civilian speak."

Even with their military training, many veterans need more education as they try to enter the workforce, says Lynda Horne, who is contract compliance officer at the Center for Veterans Issues.

"Some vets need extra training or retraining to get a job," Horne said. "They need to make themselves marketable and improve their skill sets."

"Start looking for work as early as you can."

As for fears of a veteran suffering from physical or emotional disabilities like post traumatic stress syndrome(PTSD), Beal, who served as a Marine in Desert Storm, said those issues can be overcome.

"I've been diagnosed with PTSD and I'm working," Beal explained. "We need to get the word out that it's not a reason not to hire someone."

For their part, companies that do hire veterans—like product development firm Tronex International in Olive, New Jersey—say they can see some slight differences between a military candidate and a civilian.

Job applicants register at a military job fair for National Guardsmen, veterans and their families.
Getty Images
Job applicants register at a military job fair for National Guardsmen, veterans and their families.

"They are more disciplined than a nonmilitary person, which is good, and more focused, but they can be stiffer as people," says Tronex president Donald Chu, who has 6 veterans working his 70 person staff. "That might not translate so well for some firms."

For a big firm like General Motors , which employs some 5,000 veterans and has several programs to help retired military personnel, they say they don't see transitional problems hiring vets and "will continue to draw on that talent pool."

Some vets are finding work. Gerry Peppmuller of San Antonio, Texas, is retiring as a major in the U.S. Army in August after 21 years of duty.

The 45-year-old Peppmuller says he has a job lined up with a railroad corporation that they created for him, after getting the interview through Orion International.

"We as veterans just need to get in front of people to make our case," said Peppmuller, who is married and has two older children. "Corporations are looking for leaders and there's no better place to get them than from the military."

There may be too many leaders to choose from in the years ahead, however. An estimated one million military personnel will be leaving the services over the next four years, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

"Americans have to ask themselves what they want to do with veterans," said Norred of Vets4Heroes. "More money should be spent on them. Vets are homeless and jobless. It's time to fix that going forward."

For Ovaldo Rivera, his worry is the current job picture, even if it means probably rejecting a couple of lower-paying offers that don't seem right for him.

"One was to supervise a gas and oil cleaning crew, and it wasn't something I wanted," said the former drill instructor, who is working toward getting his bachelor's degree in applied management.

"But I do have a possible offer as a real estate land man for an oil company," Rivera said. "I'd be checking out who owns what section of land for drilling, and it would pay $200 to $300 a day. I'd like that."

Rivera's job search experience has given him a chance to offer advice for future vets — as well as reflect on his accomplishments.

"Start as early as you can before you leave the service," Rivera suggested. "Look at placement firms, get out and meet people, and network with other vets. It's not easy, but I know that with my experience in the military, I can learn anything."