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Veterans face new battles in civilian workforce

By Steve Giegerich, St. Louis Post-Dispatch –

ST. LOUIS — George Owen sweats the normal stuff as he contemplates the next phase of his career. Like where the job will take him or how he’ll fit in with new co-workers.

The departure from the norm occurs at the point Owen ponders the prospect of sartorial choice. “I’ll probably have to pick out my own clothes,” he ventures.

Wardrobe has never been an issue for Owen, 41, a West Virginia native who enlisted in the U.S. Air Force straight out of high school.

Engaging, intelligent and availing himself of the Scott Air Force Base Transition Assistance Program, Senior Master Sergeant Owen shouldn’t have a problem finding employment when he moves into the workforce at some point over the next year or two.

But an analysis released in March suggests Owen might have to jump through a few more hoops than the general public before finding meaningful employment.

The report, prepared by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, found the unemployment rate among veterans who have served on active duty since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks was 12.1 percent last year, about a third higher than the 8.9 percent rate for the civilian population.

Those in the business of connecting veterans to employment and entrepreneurial opportunities point to multiple reasons for the disconnect.

For discharged military personnel, the outside world represents “a different dynamic,” said William Wheeler, president of the Veteran Corps of America, a government contractor headquartered in O’Fallon, Ill.

One that is particularly profound for young veterans returning from combat action in Afghanistan, Iraq or both.

“You’ve been out there with the power of life and death in your hands,” said Wheeler. “And it’s a paradox because you’ve had this immense life experience in a short period of time but you may not have the skills that translate into working as the manager of a burger joint.”

To ease the passage for combat and non-combat troops alike, Scott Air Force Base and other installations rely on the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) to counsel soon-to-be-discharged personnel on what awaits beyond the perimeter of military life.

Though he hasn’t set a date for his separation from the Air Force, Owen has already taken advantage of the voluntary classes orchestrated by the U.S. Department of Labor.

“The earlier you start the process, the better off you are,” he reasons.

TAP helped Owen hone his interviewing skills and brush up on resume writing, an aspect of the job search he’d encountered only fleetingly during his 22 year military career.

For those preparing to move from the acronym-laden military to businesses with their own jargon, linguistic re-orientation may have been the most important lesson of all.

“We let them know they are going to have to put things in language a civilian can understand,” said Deb Teague, a community readiness technician with the Airman and Family Readiness Center.

Owen’s military job description of “functional manager” is a perfect example.

That job is known in the outside world as civil engineering.

Owen figures he should be able to “pretty much close my eyes, throw a line out and get a job.”

At the same time he acknowledges, “Unless I learn the lingo, it’s not going to happen.”

Owen, with his background as a surveyor and in support positions in the engineering field, is fairly well positioned to ease into a civilian job.

Others aren’t as fortunate.

“A lot of (young veterans) went in (the military) for good reasons,” said Wheeler. “But the skill sets they picked up were not advanced technical skills. It’s a problem when they (return to civilian life) with skills that apply in combat. A lot of companies will look at them and say, ‘We don’t need an infantryman.’ ”

From the Department of Veterans Affairs to nonprofits, there is, to be sure, no shortage of federal, state and privately run programs to assist veterans in the search for employment.

Still, despite commitments from employers to even the playing field, job seekers with a military background ultimately are judged by the same system as civilian counterparts.

“Employers seem to be very receptive, but they also need someone who can do the job. And if you have someone with limitations, they may pick someone else,” said Beth Brown, assistant vice president of MERS/Goodwill, the nonprofit that last year provided re-training, vocational and rehabilitation services to 3,700 St. Louis-area veterans.

With post-traumatic stress disorder dominating many conversations about returning Afghan and Iraqi war vets, the limitation often centers — unfairly Wheeler contends — on the psychological fallout of armed combat.

“You need to be a bit uninformed to buy into that,” Wheeler said.

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