As bad as the job market is for unemployed professionals in El Paso County, the situation is even worse for military veterans looking to enter the workforce.
El Paso County is home to nearly 80,000 veterans, and last year 15,277 of them, or 19 percent, registered with the Pikes Peak Workforce Center for help finding employment.
According to the PPWFC, this isn’t because veterans aren’t qualified. More than 99 percent of registered veterans in the region have a high school diploma, compared to 93 percent of non-veterans, and 27 percent have a bachelor’s or advanced degree compared with 22 percent of civilians registered with the agency.
But veterans face a host of unique challenges in this second phase of their careers, and chief among them is packaging their military experience into a narrative that hiring companies can understand.
“It’s hard for corporate America to figure out what people coming from the military will be good at and how they can contribute to that business,” said Brian Binn, president of military affairs at the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce. “If you look at their skill sets, a lot of it relates to leadership, human relations and training, but you have to dig to explain those things. They’re not easily quantifiable.”
Julian Carrier, 28, of Colorado Springs is one of those unemployed veterans. He joined the National Guard directly after earning an aviation degree from the University of Central Missouri. In early 2009, Carrier’s battalion was deployed to Iraq where he was in charge of a logistical platoon that ran supplies to bases all over the country.
Carrier has been out of work since returning from Iraq in April 2010, and he echoed the problems returning soldiers face in marketing their experiences.
“Even though I have a lot of leadership and managerial-type experiences, the recession has knocked everyone down a notch, so I’m competing with more qualified people,” he said. “Even though I have a B.A. and military experience, that still gets trumped by someone who has direct experience with something.”
While companies are always looking to hire candidates who possess those intangible assets, the burden falls on soldiers to dictate their qualifications clearly, and the military and corporate cultures are so foreign to one another that a lot can get lost in translation.
“A military person will have tons of examples to draw on about how their experiences prove they have leadership qualities or can manage a team, the key is to frame those in a way that will make sense to a business person,” said Bill Scott, vice president of marketing at military placement firm Bradley-Morris Inc. “Once they’re able to peel out the military terms and put it in business terms, a lot of these companies are blown away by the caliber of experience these veterans have.”
Firms such as Bradley-Morris and the El Paso County Veteran Services agency help veterans strip their resumes of military acronyms, school them on social media such as LinkedIn and conduct practice interviews in an attempt to bridge this divide. The agencies also work directly with companies to try and draw a straight line from military experience to the private sector.
“Compared to someone of the same age, military veterans often have a lot more leadership experience or might have experience managing a budget or a chain of manufacturing processes,” Scott said. “We’re trying to show companies how tank maintenance ties directly to managing any type of manufacturing process.”
In addition, Bradley-Morris uses historical data to show how various ranks of veterans fare in specific positions.
“We look at someone of a certain rank and can show where we’ve placed similar ranks,” Scott said. “Someone with a combat arms background is going to be driven, focused and able to handle a stressful situation. A lot of people don’t realize that those are the qualities that make a great sales person.”
Michael Pennica owns the Springs-based Pennica Financial Group, and he buys wholesale into this philosophy. His firm has landed a number of employees from the military sector by reaching out at military job fairs.
“We’re looking for people with good communication and leadership skills, and someone who is comfortable managing a program,” he said. “We can directly translate those skills into a new financial advisor.”
Still, a considerable disconnect remains between the two sectors, for which both sides are responsible. On the military end, veterans will sometimes pass on a solid career opportunity because it seems below them.
“Someone who is a squad leader or a tank commander will think that with that leadership experience they should go straight into management,” said Eric Mitchell, who runs the military placement firm UCAN Consulting in Colorado Springs. “But they still have to learn the nuances of a company or industry. A company might offer to put them in a training program, and sometimes the soldier won’t want to go there.”
On the flip side, companies have a tendency to undervalue military experience, Mitchell said. For example, a captain leaving the military will have a few years experience dealing with people from every walk of life, nationally and globally, in stressful, real-world life or death scenarios.
“Those are valuable skills you can’t train someone to have,” Mitchell said.
Employers might be intimidated because they don’t know how to engage with former military members or out of fear of hiring someone who might have post-traumatic stress disorder. In conjuring PTSD, Mitchell uncovers a portion of the veteran population that faces even greater hurdles when it comes to finding employment: the wounded and disabled.
Here again, the misunderstandings exist on both sides.
“Sometimes an injured veteran will put on their civilian resume that they’re 30 percent disabled, and the person looking at that resume will be scared off because they don’t know how to work with a disabled person,” Scott said. “The soldier doesn’t know not to put that on the resume, and the employer doesn’t know that 30 percent disabled might just be a disk problem in his back that you wouldn’t otherwise know he had.”
But while acknowledging the psychological difficulties faced by the newly disabled, Mitchell is not shy about putting the onus squarely on the injured soldier to be productive. He said incentives for injured veterans are skewed, and that this plays a role in their higher-than-average unemployment rate.
“Some of the wounded are drawing more money now than they ever have, and they don’t want to work because they’ll lose that disability payment,” he said. “If a guy is making what he made before and pulling Social Security, where’s the incentive? There needs to be more training and education available to motivate them to get out there.”
Mitchell stressed that most veterans who can work are actively seeking employment, and for them, there is a wide range of resources available to help in that transition.
This week in Colorado Springs more than 50 businesses and educational institutions gathered at the Crowne Plaza for a military job fair. Veterans could take advantage of free training, seminars and courses on how to dress, interview, start a franchise or land a federal job.
Lesser known are initiatives such as the Vocational, Rehabilitation and Employment program the El Paso County VA offers. The program provides veterans with the necessary education and equipment to embark on a new career. The VA also pays the cost for employers that offer on-the-job training during an introductory period.
Still, the scarcity of jobs for everyone in the labor pool means some veterans are falling through the cracks.
“The VA has helped me build my resume. I’ve done career counseling, and the guys at the VA are all former military, so they know what they’re doing,” said Carrier, the National Guard veteran. “But I’ve applied to the Springs Fire Department and I’ve applied for federal jobs. Construction is all dried up, and the airport had a hiring freeze right after I interviewed. It’s been really tough.”
And that’s the story all over the country, as the national unemployment rate for veterans is 9.9 percent, while the overall unemployment rate was at 9.0 percent this week.
Mitchell pointed out that there’s no easy fix, as the unique experiences of each veteran requires a specific match.
Veterans in El Paso County range from injured young infantrymen at Fort Carson to retired Air Force cadets, and have wartime experience in the ongoing Afghan and Iraqi campaigns, the Gulf War, the Korean Conflict, Vietnam and World War II, as well as the lower-profile missions in Panama, Grenada, Bosnia and Somalia.
“Each and every one of the veterans are individual personalities with individual problems or non-problems,” Mitchell said. “I’m in this because I don’t want to see these guys sleeping in the park in 15 years, and if we don’t do this right that’s where some of them will be. There needs to be a paradigm shift on both ends.”
Tips for veterans seeking work:
Source: Bradley-Morris Inc.
Veterans in Colorado: 421,300
Veterans in El Paso County: 80,000
Veterans registered with Pikes Peak Work Force in 2010: 15,277
El Paso County unemployment rate: 9.3 percent
Colorado unemployment rate: 8.6 percent
National unemployment rate: 9 percent
National veteran unemployment rate: 9.9 percent
Afghanistan and Iraq veteran unemployment rate: 15.2 percent
Source: CSBJ staff research