Vets Struggle with Hiring Decisions
Rick Barrett, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
In the Army, Matt Lengyel says, he was trained in the skills of the battlefield.
Now, as a teacher, he has brought other skills acquired as a combat engineer to the classroom.
Among them: leadership, discipline, problem-solving and the ability to work with others.
His Army experience, Lengyel said, gave him the mental and physical strength for many things that civilians couldn't do without rigorous training.
"Kids look up to me because of my military experience," said Lengyel, a math teacher at Right Step Academy in Milwaukee.
But some employers don't see it that way, and veterans don't always know how to translate their skills learned in the military for companies back home.
It's like they're talking in different languages, said Wendy Koppel, owner of Division 10 Personnel/Aero Staff, a Milwaukee employment agency that helps veterans and businesses connect with each other.
"It's a problem we would like to see resolved because veterans have such amazing skills, especially in mechanical and technical areas," Koppel said.
Moreover, if someone remains active in the National Guard or Reserves, the deployments and training schedule sometimes result in job losses and missed opportunities in their civilian career.
In 2011, the jobless rate for veterans ages 20 to 24 tripled to about 30%, according to Ted Daywalt, a veterans advocate from Georgia who has testified before the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs.
That's largely because many of these young men and women remained in the Guard and Reserve after they left active duty, and they were subject to lengthy deployments that interrupted their civilian careers.
Some Department of Defense officials have pretended the problem doesn't exist, said Daywalt, who runs an online employment service, VetJobs, that's partly owned by the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
"That might be good for a bureaucrat's career, but the young members of the National Guard and Reserve who have families to support should be given better treatment," he said.
Guard and Reserve officials in Wisconsin say most employers respect military obligations and follow the law that protects someone's job while they're on a deployment.
But some Guard and Reserve members complain that companies won't hire them because they could be called away from work for a year, putting their employers in a bind.
"It doesn't matter how high you rank in a company, or what your credentials are, if an employer senses they're not going to have your presence because of the possibility of deployments, they will look for someone else," said one Guard member from Milwaukee who asked to remain anonymous because his comments could cause him difficulties with the Guard or his employer.
Guard members are sometimes passed over for promotions at their civilian employers because of deployments, Daywalt said. Some companies have fired Guard members under the guise of "economic reasons," he said, when the reason was really because of the possibility of deployments.
"Employers have endured watching their National Guard employees' call-up time move from 30 days to 90 days to six months and then to one year," Daywalt said.
From a company's perspective, he added, they have no practical ability to replace someone who has been called up for military duty for long periods of time.
Most Wisconsin companies support their Guard and Reserve employees, according to the Wisconsin branch of the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve.
Still, the rising jobless rate caught the agency's attention.
"Our agency was not at all involved with facilitating employment up until two years ago. But we have been redirected, in a way, because of the unemployment numbers," said Tim Flatley, executive director of the Wisconsin Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve.
"We are not dodging the lost-time issue, but rather we are promoting the benefits of military service," Flatley said. "These sorts of things haven't been done before, frankly, and we are all very guilty of that."
Companies can get tax credits for hiring veterans. Also, many companies have found that veterans and members of the Guard and Reserves are skilled employees who have proven they can handle difficult situations including the stresses of war.
"Any person who has spent a year or more on active duty has marketable skills wanted by civilian employers," Daywalt said. "The military has engineers, nurses, lawyers, accountants, store managers, telecommunications technicians, truck drivers, food-service managers and more."
Someone who has worked on fighter aircraft, tanks or other sophisticated weaponry will know how to read schematic drawings for equipment in the civilian world, and those types of skills are transferrable.
But it's not always that way, said Mathew Gilpin, a former Marine Corps aircraft mechanic who now works as a welder at Marinette Marine Co.
From a work ethic perspective, the transition to civilian employment wasn't difficult, Gilpin said.
"But, occupationally, it was very hard. Most of my credentials didn't transfer over to the civilian world, so I wasn't able to be an aircraft structural mechanic when I got out of the Marines unless I went through more schooling."
War veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder have had problems finding jobs because employers view them as a liability. Also, being unemployed adds to their stress.
Sometimes the toughest hurdle to clear is coming back home, said Nathan Anhalt, an Army veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and now is studying law enforcement at Milwaukee Area Technical College.
It takes awhile getting used to "not having a target painted on your back," said Anhalt, who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder when he returned from the battlefront.
Anhalt said he was turned down for jobs at the Milwaukee Police Department and the U.S. Transportation Security Administration because of his PTSD, although he had reams of documents showing he had successfully completed treatment.
"That has been the hardest struggle for me," he said.
Some veterans wish they had never left the military, partly because of the sense of belonging and camaraderie they had there, said Christopher Wheeler, a Navy veteran from Milwaukee who had a hard time readjusting to civilian life in the mid-1980s.
Wheeler spent several years homeless, hopping freight trains and trying to fill a void in his life left from the Navy. He worked various jobs with mixed success.
"Sometimes the outside world just didn't make sense to me," Wheeler said.
The jobless rate for veterans, as a group, has always been lower than the national unemployment rate, Daywalt said.
"The overall outlook for veteran employment is positive. Eighty-one percent of military occupations have a direct or very close civilian equivalent," he said, although gaps exist and the jobless rate for young veterans remains a problem.
Having studied the National Guard unemployment problem for nearly a decade, Daywalt said, he hasn't found a silver bullet solution.
But any solution must gain the support of employers and meet the needs of the military, he said.
"The nation cannot continue to call members of the National Guard up to fight wars and then make it difficult for those members to obtain employment in the civilian sector," Daywalt said.
For transition tips and guides to aid you in your military transition, visit the Military.com Transition Center.