When Tom Tarantino left the Army as a captain in 2007, he was uncertain how his jobs skills as a mortar and cavalry platoon leader in Iraq and his Bronze Star might be marketable when he entered the workforce back home.
"A good part of it was me not understanding how to sell myself," he recalls of his initial job hunt. "It's not like I did nothing for the 10 years I was in the military, but I had nothing to go by, to understand what a civilian market needs and how to transition from that."
He eventually found his way: Mr. Tarantino now works as a senior legislative associate for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA.org), where he sees the challenges other returning veterans face as an increasing number look for work in a tight job market.
For American troops, the Iraq conflict has ended and the Afghanistan War is winding down at a time when the U.S. economy is struggling and unemployment statistics for veterans are stark.
The latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics put the jobless rate for Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans at 13.1 percent, up from 11.1 percent a year ago. The December unemployment rate for those recent veterans was 4.5 percentage points higher than the national jobless rate.
Mr. Tarantino, mindful of the high numbers, calls it a structural issue. While many corporations nationwide are invested in hiring veterans, "this is the first generation of business leaders in this country who have never served in the military," he said. "Prior to this generation, almost everyone had served ... and the military resume was something easy to translate.
"But leadership skills, being an officer, are not understood by the current employment climate. What we had to do was go back and figure out ways to do quantitative analysis so that we can effectively transition people without losing the valuable skills they got in the military."
Business groups are stepping into the breach as well.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce last year initiated a "Hiring Our Heroes" drive designed to help returning service members and their spouses find jobs. Chamber officials said last week that the Washington-based business group and its local affiliates have hosted 83 hiring fairs in 41 states, putting an estimated 81,000 military veterans and spouses into contact with more than 4,000 employers.
On Friday, the chamber partnered with NBC News, its local affiliate and the Military Spouse Employment Partnership for what was billed as the largest career forum of its kind at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center dedicated exclusively to helping military spouses get jobs. The gathering featured free makeovers, interview and resume coaching, and interview rooms for applicants to meet with employers.
Steven Karl, 28, left his intelligence job in the Air Force in 2010 after serving two years supporting Operation Enduring Freedom in Southwest Asia. The University of Florida graduate was rehired quickly as a civilian contractor and is serving a two-year stint doing similar work in Afghanistan. Mindful of his future, he spent much of the past year earning his master's degree.
Most of his military friends, he added, had little trouble picking up civilian work for the military, but they are the ones who have been flexible.
"I think the Air Force does a good job of setting people up for success as they are headed out the door," Mr. Karl said. "They provide classes and numerous resources, but just like after college or high school, getting a job will be dependent on the level of motivation of the individual and the level of sacrifice they are willing to make to ensure their ability to be employed."
Added Mr. Karl: "The sad fact is, some members of the military depart because they lacked qualities that made them a good member of the armed forces. This is a tiny minority of vets, and they tend to be vocal about their situation. The only person I know who was completely unable to get a job was very picky about where he ended up and did not exit the military under the best of circumstances, which is a luxury that can't be taken in the current market."
Ted Daywalt serves as president of VetJobs, a business based in Marietta, Ga., and supported in part by the Veterans of Foreign Wars. It offers job boards for veterans and resources to support their returns home.
Mr. Daywalt said the number of available jobs posted on his board has increased from 3 percent to 11 percent over the past year as the economy slowly improves. He said that veterans who take advantage of training, and who are motivated and flexible in their job searches, have many opportunities waiting for them at home.
While the unemployment rate for veterans of all America's wars is lower than the nonveteran or the national unemployment rates, finding a job is harder for young veterans, in particular those ages 18 to 24 who serve irregular shifts in the National Guard or in its reserves, he said.
As these groups have been deployed multiple times to Iraq and Afghanistan, companies — particularly small businesses — have struggled to keep their job slots open when the date of their return to the U.S. is uncertain.
"Companies want to support the military and veterans, but they cannot go broke doing so," he said. "The unemployment rate in the National Guard and reserves will increase in 2012 as the Department of Defense downsizes, as an employer would rather hire a veteran who is not subject to being called away for 12 or more months."
The IAVA is sponsoring four job fairs this year aimed at pairing veterans with employers, spokesman James Drury said. Their efforts have been abetted by improvements to the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act that increase safeguards on jobs for reserve and National Guard veterans, but also offer more training and education benefits for those who need it.
The Wall Street Journal has reported that state and local governments are giving preference to veteran-owned businesses that provide goods and services. The National Veteran-Owned Business Association counts 23 states that offer special treatment for veteran-owned businesses — up from 14 three years ago.
In late November, President Obama signed legislation that offers tax credits for businesses that hire unemployed veterans.
HR 674, dubbed the Returning Heroes Tax Credit, was led by Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat, and Rep. Jeff Miller, Florida Republican, and had bipartisan backing. It gives businesses up to 40 percent credit on the first $6,000 in wages paid to a veteran who has been unemployed for at least four weeks.
Businesses that hire veterans who have been out of work for more than six months get a 40 percent tax credit on the initial $14,000 of wages. In addition, the law offers incentives to businesses that employ disabled veterans and makes federal aid programs offering transitional funds mandatory for those who are returning.
According to the Armed Forces Press Services, close to 29 percent of new federal government jobs went to returning veterans in fiscal year 2011, marking a 20-year high.
Mr. Daywalt said veterans and employers must share responsibility for opening doors as U.S. forces abroad are drawn down.
"The person has to take the initiative to do it. If you are willing to go out and chase it down, you can find the job," he said. "It may mean more education, but with this new G.I. Bill, they can learn a trade or get a degree."
Good information sources are available in each state, he said, citing the VFW, the Navy League and American Legion chapters. Online resources are also plentiful and include onetonline.org, corporategray.com and militaryhire.com.
"Employers need to hire veterans — they must," Mr. Daywalt said. "I think 99.9 percent of employers are very pro-military. Sometimes I think our employers understand the need for a strong military better than some members of Congress."
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