Young Vets Hard-Hit by Unemployment

John Duwe carries himself with a bearing that telegraphs his service in the United States Marine Corps Reserve -- forthright, with eyes locked in.

Duwe reflexively stands at parade rest during casual conversation even out of uniform. His demeanor displays and demands respect.

Yet nearly a year after he returned unscathed from a tour in Iraq, those qualities have done nothing to earn the St. Genevieve County resident a full-time job.

"We came back to a market that was in the hole," said Duwe, 30, who has worked a few part-time gigs.

Like Duwe, enlisted, reserve and National Guard personnel trickling back from Iraq and Afghanistan are learning that military service is no job guarantee during an employment crisis that has sidelined nearly 14 million Americans. The unemployment rate for returning troops stands at 11.3 percent, compared with the already dire national unemployment figure of 9.4 percent as of November.

The problem seems concentrated among younger veterans, fresh from war. The rate for all veterans over the age of 18 -- 8.3 percent -- actually trails the national rate.

Employment experts cite several reasons for the increased unemployment rate among young veterans, including the uncertainty raised by multiple deployments, extended time away from a job market that has grown ferocious and subtle worries that troops return home bearing psychological scars.

The heightened joblessness comes even as today's military personnel typically boast a more sophisticated set of skills and credentials than in past conflicts, in which troops often enlisted -- or got drafted -- right out of high school. The majority of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan were drawn from the reserve and National Guard units, many of whom had full-time jobs, college degrees or both.

Regardless, many of those full-time positions were swept away by the same recessionary wave that wiped out 8 million other jobs between 2007 and 2009.

"People are having trouble finding jobs no matter what group they are in," said Michael Holmes, director of the St. Louis Agency on Training and Employment.

Back to the front

In America's last prolonged conflict, Vietnam, troops generally served a single 12-month tour. In Iraq and Afghanistan, they have grown accustomed to getting deployed two and three times.

"My gut feeling is that a lot of employers are reluctant to hire National Guard and reservists because they are afraid they're going to leave again," said Shams Chughtai, a veterans coordinator with the Missouri Department of Workforce Development. "That is especially true among smaller employers. They're afraid that someone who is an integral, indispensable part of the team will be activated and gone."

Military personnel who enlisted straight out of high school are even more vulnerable to joblessness. A major hurdle for these enlistees -- discharged after six years of active duty -- is a lack of job-seeking experience, according to Mark Lear, a veteran and a vice president with the Travelers Companies regional office in St. Louis County.

Chris Edwards, a veterans liaison with the Illinois Department of Employment Security office in Belleville, pointed out that even highly skilled veterans are hitting the employment wall.

"They come back after working on highly complex defense systems, and employers are telling them they are overqualified," Edwards said.

Another factor, not so easily defined, may also be a hurdle.

Employment officials have varying opinions on how concerns over combat-related psychological issues may affect job opportunities for veterans. Some contend that the fallout from publicity given post-traumatic stress disorder and other disorders is minimal.

If anything, said Lear, the national conversation about post-traumatic stress has helped lift some of the stigma that vets faced in other wars, particularly Vietnam.

"This era [of veterans] is coming back to 100 percent support," said Lear, a co-organizer of the Show-Me Heroes Career Fair last Saturday at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Edwards concurs -- to a point.

"There are more people talking about PTSD," he said. "But you still have employers that say, 'Oh no, I've got John Rambo coming back.' "

Getting their due

The issue of veterans returning to the work force could take on an increasing sense of urgency as U.S. involvement in Iraq winds down and a timetable for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan dominates the national conversation.

Missouri and Illinois, in fact, are already moving jobs for veterans to the top of the employment priority list. In Missouri, the Show-Me Heroes program, sparked by Gov. Jay Nixon and coordinated by the Department of Economic Development, asks businesses statewide to take a pledge promising to add veterans to their payrolls. Companies that follow through are recognized on the program's website.

Missouri employment officials are also redoubling the effort to ensure that employers with federal contracts in excess of $100,000 are complying with guidelines that veterans comprise a portion of their work force.

"We're not asking [employers] to hire veterans above everybody else," said program director Lt. Col. Alan Rohlfing. "We're asking them to consciously consider the attributes of veterans that can have a positive impact on the work force."

Illinois, meanwhile, is committed to assistance programs that provide individual job counseling for veterans, tax incentives that encourage businesses to hire veterans and other resources designed to assist the transition back to civilian life.

" 'Are you a veteran?' is the first thing the greeter asks when clients walk through the door," said Vicki Niederhoffer, director of the Illinois Department of Employment Security's Belleville field office.

Bob Schaefer, of Fairview Heights, who was laid off as a structural design engineer last June, appreciates the sentiment. But he contends his Air Force service during the 1960s should not give him priority in the job market over nonveterans.

That's not to say Schaefer is averse to veterans programs that Illinois has to offer. Schaefer is jobless at age 60, and with "so little work out there," he says he will seize any advantage.

Del Senn, the veterans representative in the Florissant office of the Missouri Career Center, says most veterans -- like Schaefer -- don't believe that hiring should be a quid pro quo for military service.

Unfortunately, he added, prolonged unemployment -- following prolonged deployments -- has a way of changing that viewpoint.

"They feel that their country has abandoned them," said Senn, a Vietnam veteran. "They feel that they are not getting their righteous due. I'm not saying it's true. But I can understand why they feel that way."

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