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By Mike Stajura
November 7, 2014
IDEAS
Mike Stajura is a doctoral candidate at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. He served in the U.S. Army from 1995-2002.

As the military drawdown in Afghanistan continues, the United States will add an additional 80,000 veterans from the Army alone to the civilian workforce. This is on top of the normal annual rate of separations from military service. On this Veterans Day, let’s think about all of America’s soldiers who are receiving pink slips.

Members of the military receive rigorous training from a very selective institution, and they served their country under difficult circumstances that required adaptability, perseverance, teamwork, and maturity. What more could an employer want?

It would seem a lot more. Despite the many veteran employment initiatives out there—put forward by the White House, mayors’ offices, corporations, and nonprofit organizations—it’s still difficult for veterans to find work, let alone jobs that use them well. The Syracuse University Institute for Veterans and Military Families offers one explanation that applies to me and other veterans I’ve talked to: many veterans take work that is a poor fit for their knowledge, skills, ability, and experience. This leads to dissatisfaction, lower performance, and job-hopping.

If you were a helicopter mechanic in the military, then it makes sense to seek work fixing helicopters as a civilian. It’s harder for veterans whose primary military job skills don’t directly translate to the civilian workforce. As an infantry officer for the Army (who left before the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan started), my work included managing a fleet of armored vehicles, supervising the distribution of water in Honduras, and assisting a State Department official in Bosnia-Herzegovina. When I completed the coursework for my doctorate degree in public health, I started applying for emergency management and disaster services positions.

I wasn’t even getting called for job interviews, though. Rather, I’d get letters saying that I met the education and skill requirements, but didn’t have the “right” experience for a job. They were looking for specific junior job titles on my resume that I would never have unless I was to start at the lowest rung of the career ladder at 41 years old.

I was rejected from about a dozen jobs in three months. Even after working with mentors and consulting with guides to help veterans find civilian work, it was hard to figure out how to present my skills and experience. The “skills translator” at www.military.com said that in civilian-speak I was trained in “message processing procedures.” Seriously?

I got my next two jobs precisely because I am a veteran. The first employer emailed a job announcement to a group of Los Angeles veterans because he had a contract with the Army and needed someone who could “speak Army.” I became highly prized for my ability to produce PowerPoint slides and “decision-support matrices” according to Army norms.

My second job involves an organization that serves veterans and their families. During the first three months, I worked on occasional tasks but I could not even explain to other employees what my job was because I didn’t have an official description or direct supervisor.

This was very different from the Army, where everyone has a clear task and there’s constant interaction and feedback. Things finally changed for the better after I explained that I needed a project and accountability.

Michael Poyma, an employment specialist for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Michigan, has heard many stories similar to mine. And he thinks some of the most common approaches to matching veteran job seekers and employers need to be rethought. For example, both job seekers and employers have told Poyma that many job fairs are a waste of time. While some people find jobs this way, it’s a drop in the bucket. They also create high-pressure, high-expectation situations that can magnify disappointment.

Poyma and others have also noted that veterans gravitate in disproportionate numbers towards certain fields: government service, law enforcement, government contracting, work with veterans. These jobs allow veterans to continue working in a familiar environment related to public service.

But isolation can just entrench the misunderstanding. This is why Chris Marvin of Got Your 6, and previously, The Mission Continues, has embarked on projects to help veterans integrate fully into the civilian world that they have rejoined. The Mission Continues, for instance, puts veterans to work painting houses, tending community gardens, or mentoring kids at a wide range of community and nonprofit organizations.

Poyma and other VA representatives are about to start pilot seminars will seat potential employers and veterans on opposite sides of the room, separated by a “demilitarized zone.” He will conduct exercises to dismantle the demilitarized zone by discussing systemic barriers to employment (some of which I’ve already talked about, but others such as the cost of retraining for civilian licenses), the stigmas that follow veterans, and each side’s particular acronyms and jargon. In the end, he hopes to demonstrate that there is hidden value in a veteran’s resume if employers will only take the time to look.

Mike Stajura wrote this for Thinking L.A., a partnership of UCLA and Zocalo Public Square.

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