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Unemployment is a special challenge for veterans

They say that civilian employers don't always appreciate their skills and maturity, and that a focus on PTSD and brain injuries has stigmatized those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

April 25, 2012|By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times
  • Matt Pizzo has gone to college and law school since he served four years in Iraq with the Air Force, but has yet to find a job in his hometown, New York.
Matt Pizzo has gone to college and law school since he served four years in… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

WASHINGTON — Matt Pizzo has a law degree, can-do attitude, proven leadership skills, and expertise in communications and satellite technology from his four years in the Air Force.

Yet the 29-year-old has been told that he's overqualified, too old, too "non-traditional," and that he's fallen behind his civilian contemporaries.

"It was disheartening, to say the least," he said of his latest job rejection. "But it's typical, I'm afraid."

For unemployed veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, rejection is a special ordeal. Veterans' advocacy groups, and many unemployed veterans, say civilian employers don't always appreciate veterans' skills and maturity. They point out that this is the first generation of employers who have no widespread military experience and thus no inherent appreciation for what the institution can provide.

Further, the increased military and media attention given topost-traumatic stress disorderand traumatic brain injury has had the effect of stigmatizing veterans, advocates say. Some employers fear that soldiers diagnosed with these conditions are prone to violence or instability.

The unemployment rate for veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq is 10.3%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For veterans age 24 and under, the rate is 29.1%, or 12 points higher than for civilians the same age. That compares with 8.2% unemployment nationally, and 7.5% for all veterans.

A survey this year by the advocacy group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America found that a quarter of its members could not find a job to match their skill level, and half said they did not believe employers were open to hiring veterans.

"These veterans have skills and maturity a decade beyond their civilian peers," said Tom Tarantino, the group's deputy policy director, who couldn't find work for 10 months after he left the Army in 2007. "It's very frustrating for them to be told they have to retrain for jobs they've already been trained for in the military."

Tarantino said that he spent 10 years as an officer who managed a multimillion-dollar budget and supervised 400 people.

"They just don't get it," Tarantino said of today's employers. "It's hard to make that cultural connection."

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When it comes to hiring barriers, PTSD is the often-unacknowledged obstacle.

The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 11% to 20% of Afghanistan and Iraq veterans suffer from the disorder. A 2008 Rand Corp. study found that 30% of returning veterans screened positive for PTSD, traumatic brain injuries or depression.

Hannah Rudstam of Cornell University's Industrial and Labor Relations School studies veterans' employment, and says many employers consider PTSD and traumatic brain injury mysterious and threatening.

In a recent survey of human resource officers conducted by Rudstam and others, 73% of respondents agreed that hiring veterans with disabilities would help their business. But at the same time, 63% said that employing workers with PTSD or traumatic brain injury would require more effort — and 61% said they were unsure whether they posed a workplace threat.

"We know it's an issue," said John Moran, who directs the Veterans' Employment and Training Service at the Labor Department. An agency website offers employers a "tool kit" with detailed information about PTSD and traumatic brain injuries.

But veterans themselves don't always do a good job at making their case to potential employers.

Lisa Rosser, a 22-year Army veteran who runs Value of a Veteran, a consulting firm, said many veterans didn't translate their military experience into civilian language even though 81% of military jobs have a close civilian equivalent.

For instance, the military's Visual Information Equipment Operator-Maintainer MOS 25R would be, in the civilian world, someone who runs video teleconferencing.

"Employers don't understand those resumes," said Rosser, whose firm advises employers on hiring veterans. "But they have plenty of civilian resumes on hand to choose from, so they tend to go with what they understand."

Many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, of course, do land jobs — at least 240,000 in the most recent 12-month reporting period, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The biggest hiring increases were in wholesale and retail trade (79,000 jobs) and state or local government (50,000). On the other hand, 10,000 fewer Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans were hired by the federal government and 8,000 fewer were hired by the construction industry compared with the previous 12-month period.

Hundreds of job fairs have sprung up to help what one VA official calls a "tsunami" of more than a million veterans who will be returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. About 7,000 veterans have found jobs through "Hiring Our Heroes," a series of 140 job fairs sponsored by theU.S. Chamber of Commerce.

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