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Employment Centers Prepared for Exiting Vets

KITSAP COUNTY -- If the Iraq War's end triggers a wave of exiting service members at local unemployment offices, two of their own will be waiting.

"There is a massive adjustment there that takes place," said Todd Wagner, veterans representative with WorkSource of Kitsap County, the public employment office in Bremerton.

Wagner, 47, remembers "disillusion" on returning home in 2005 after eight deployments in the Navy over 20 years. All those years of solid service to country, and now potential employers were nitpicking, asking him for certifications he didn't have that only hinted at the wide range of real skills he did had.

"Being able to convey my transitional skills was my biggest challenge," said Wagner, who ended up working as a manager for a print-solutions company in Seattle, then selling furniture, and then helping vets get jobs at WorkSource.

Bob Middlebrook, director of Sound Works Job Center of Poulsbo, spent four years enlisted with the Air Force and another 30 as a civilian investigator of Air Force crashes.

"Anything they ask, I got it covered, OK?" he said of returning vets. "There are a lot of jobs if they're prepared."

Often with veterans leaving the military, it's a matter of getting a resume ready, one free of military jargon, which can't be understood by potential employers.

"They need to know how to speak the private sector's language," WorkSource director Margaret Hess said.

And that means getting vet-to-vet help with people like Wagner and Middlebrook.

Some 5,000 U.S. service members remained in Iraq in December as President Barack Obama declared an end to the 8-year-old war. That was down from a high of 170,000.

No one really knows whether the end of the war will result in a wave of them hitting local unemployment offices. None has hit yet. Middlebrook says one will.

"We expect a large influx to start coming back in our area," he said.

Hess isn't so sure.

"Just because the war ended doesn't mean they're going to exit. They'll get reassigned somewhere else," she said.

The last big wave of returning vets to hit local employment offices was in 2009, with the 81st Brigade of the Seattle-based Washington Army National Guard returned from Iraq. WorkSource was able to take care of members, Wagner remembered. No big groups like that are expected now. Joint Base Lewis-McChord's final large group of soldiers returned in early December.

But the job-center people are ready, just in case.

Through November, 411 exiting vets who were Kitsap residents had applied for unemployment in 2011.

Fifty-five percent of exiting vets get job leads through WorkSource within 30 days. The others need further transitioning work.

Twenty percent of exiting vets who live in Kitsap County end up moving away for work, Hess said.

Many exiting vets end up working for local military bases or with contractors.

"Here at WorkSource, we've had great success getting them hired with the federal contractors," Hess said.

The take-away message: Know there's help waiting.

"They're not alone. Don't try to do it on your own, because it's so competitive these days," Wagner said.

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