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Employment Outlook Brightens for Vets, Data Show

Erik Cline's job search since he left the Marine Corps in February has been a mixed bag.

He went on a website that matches military skills with civilian jobs. He entered his experience training people in nuclear, biological and chemical defense. It didn't list any jobs for him.

Yet Cline, 29, received two offers from contractors in Quantico and Japan. He rejected both because he is committed to sharing an apartment with his sister in Chesapeake for a year.

His latest plan if he doesn't get a job: enroll in Tidewater Community College to become a paramedic. But he also has his eye on the apprenticeship program at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth.

Cline doesn't worry. "My experience will help me find a job and do well," he said.

The job outlook for veterans has brightened, according to new federal data. The national unemployment rate for veterans fell to 7 percent last year from 8.3 percent in 2011. Analysts credit the improving economy and a campaign from the public and private sectors to hire people leaving the military.

The jobless rate for veterans is nearly 1 percentage point below the overall U.S. average. But female veterans and those under 35 still face higher unemployment rates than their civilian counterparts. And some former members of the military not in those demographic categories also are encountering trouble finding work.

Robert Beck retired in 2010 as a senior chief petty officer after 26 years in the Navy. He landed with a contractor in Greece. But he's been jobless since the contract ran out last summer.

"If you're not networking and you don't have a job lined up before you get out of the Navy, you're like a guppy in a pool of sharks," said Beck, 47, of Virginia Beach. "It comes down to who you know."

The lack of networking opportunities hampers younger veterans, Cline said. "The higher you go, the more networking you accomplish."

It wasn't a problem, though, for Jason Beatty, who left the Navy as a machinist's mate last summer after 15 1/2 years in the service. He joined the Hampton Roads Sanitation District and later moved to the city of Norfolk, where he is a utilities maintenance supervisor.

"I think the prospects are great around here for people getting out of the military," said Beatty, 35, of Virginia Beach. "A person just has to hunker down and search for the positions."

Sequestration and longer-term military cuts, however, could complicate veterans' job searches, with growing numbers of candidates vying for fewer openings. Kevin Schmiegel, executive director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Hiring Our Heroes program, predicted: "The numbers are going to get worse before they continue to get better."

Veterans have better odds of finding work in Virginia than in most other states. Virginia's jobless rate for veterans was 4.1 percent in 2012, among the lowest in the country. The corresponding rate for nonveterans in the commonwealth was 5.3 percent.

"Virginia is so heavily military anyway," said Bruce Brunson, executive director of TCC's Center for Military and Veterans Education. "Veterans like to hire veterans, and it's a snowball effect."

Like others, Brunson credited government and business initiatives with improving the hiring climate for exiting military members.

In 2011, President Barack Obama signed into law tax credits, from $2,400 to $9,600 per job, for businesses that hire unemployed veterans.

The state launched Virginia Values Veterans, or V3, in June. Each participating business receives training and sets its own target. As of last week, 60 employers in the program had hired 1,242 veterans with a goal of 3,305 this year, said Steve Combs, policy director for the state Department of Veterans Services.

Huntington Ingalls Industries, the parent company of Newport News Shipbuilding, pledged to add 510 veterans and had hired 370 as of last week, Combs said. Of 400 people hired by the city of Norfolk from July through March, 79, or 20 percent, were from the military, said John Andrews, special assistant to the city manager for veterans services and military affairs.

Others in V3 include Cox Communications, the Virginia Beach Fire Department and Pilot Media, which includes The Virginian-Pilot.

Major private initiatives include the chamber's Hiring Our Heroes, which has held 500 job fairs in two years, and the 100,000 Jobs Mission, a business coalition that pledged to reach that number by 2020. Over the next five years, Wal-Mart Stores said, it will hire 100,000 veterans within one year of their discharge.

The efforts have won praise but aren't for everyone. Cline hopes to make a "living wage" and can't see working as a cashier. But the Wal-Mart program "is helpful if a person can't find a job anywhere else," he said.

Advocates say traits such as discipline, initiative and adaptability make vets ideal employees.

At a job fair in Virginia Beach sponsored by Goodwill Industries, Beck described his job as boot camp instructor: "You are constantly being monitored while you manage, evaluate, train and discipline up to 88 people for seven days a week until they graduate. If you can perform at this high level of intensity with their safety and well-being in your hands, there's nothing you can't do when it comes to managing people and assets in the private world."

For their part, "employers have to be comfortable with the idea that this person isn't coming from industry," said Tim Best, chief operating officer in Chesapeake of Bradley-Morris Inc., which matches companies with ex-military applicants. "They just have to invest in some training and development."

The challenge is getting employers to see the potential of veterans.

Mike Haynie, executive director of Syracuse University's Institute for Veterans and Military Families, recalled one Marine's resume:

"It basically said, 'I can fix a tank. I can drive a tank. I can shoot a tank.' We as a community have not done a good job helping this man articulate in a way that will resonate with civilian employers what he brings to the table."

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