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Job Search Blues

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Felicia, an Air Force wife and veteran, knows a few things about the tough job market. She and her husband, Sal, have lived it. Sal retired in 2013 after 20-plus years in a specialized and skilled military career field. He was ready for the next adventure, but he didn't know that adventure would be a job search. For a year and a half, he slogged through employment websites, job fairs and unresponsive potential employers. And that doesn't count the nine months he spent searching while he was on active duty.

Eighteen months after leaving the military, Sal found a job. Felicia said they both gained hard-won insights into the job climate for veterans.

Sal's talents, experience and years of training had seemed a good fit for a defense-industry job. Unfortunately, his retirement coincided with the budget sequester. The resulting mandatory reductions in federal spending affected military funding and government contracts, dampening those hopes, but there were other possibilities.

"I've seen the reports about unemployment," Felicia said. "But somewhere in the back of my mind I had told myself that these people struggling to find work must be inexperienced college students having to work at Starbucks until just the right gig comes along. Or maybe they were people who just weren't looking in the right places -- after all, the same news programs that report on the job rates are also reporting that jobs are out there but companies are having trouble finding people."

At the beginning of the job search, Felicia wasn't concerned, even though she had also heard about the difficulty many veterans were having finding jobs. She was confident her husband's qualifications would make it easy for him to connect with the right position, but it wasn't that simple. Sal attended veteran career events, filled out endless applications, sent resumes for jobs all over. Their family was willing to relocate, even overseas if necessary. No offers came. Personal contacts were hard to find, and online applications felt like dead ends.

"What are human resources personnel looking for that they don't see in my husband's résumé?" Felicia wondered. "Management experience? Check. Ability to train others? Check. Team player? Check."

After walking through this experience with her husband, Felicia said she has a better understanding of why veterans like Sal struggle to connect with good jobs in spite of their years of training and experience. One challenge is writing a résumé about a military career in language a civilian employer can understand.

Her husband learned which words, though common to him, were military-speak and not effective in a résumé or job interview. Instead of listing "supervisor" as a position, he was advised to say he had been a "project manager." Instead of "feedback," he was advised to say "counseling" or "mentoring."

Translating a résumé was similar to learning a new language, and the cultural differences go deeper than terminology. Civilian companies have different expectations for potential employees. Felicia pointed out that the military takes candidates with aptitude for a particular job and develops the necessary skills. In the civilian world, candidates are expected to have specific skills before they can even be considered for a position. She said this viewpoint overlooks a veteran's ability to learn and master new tasks quickly.

"Military members move every two to three years, adapt to a new place, learn a new job -- a job that lives may depend on -- master the job, teach someone else how to do it, move to a new job and repeat," Felicia said.

She said her priority during Sal's job search was to support and encourage him during those long discouraging months when it seemed no one appreciated the skills he had spent a lifetime building.

Sal's story has a happy ending and a new beginning. Eighteen months after his retirement, he made a course change, utilizing Troops to Teachers, a Department of Defense program that trains military veterans to become educators. Making use of his fluency in Spanish, Sal found a position as a high school language teacher.

Felicia, a writer, was creating a Bible study guide during Sal's job search about trusting God. She said their experiences provided plenty of raw material.

"It was not just a job hunt," she said. "It was a complete emotional journey. We don't separate our faith from this. We definitely feel that this is where he's supposed to be," she said of his newfound career. So begins the next adventure for Sal and Felicia.

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Veteran Jobs