Saturday, July 15, 2006

Young veterans join unemployment lines

USA Today
Young veterans join unemployment lines
By Katherine Hutt Scott, Gannett News Service

WASHINGTON — Young veterans returning from Iraq and other tours of duty aren't always coming back to a hero's welcome — at least from employers.

The jobless rate for veterans between ages 20 and 24 was a startling 15.6% last year, more than three times the national unemployment rate of 5.1%. The jobless rate for all 20- to 24-year-olds last year was 8.7%.

No one claims to know the reasons behind the employment travails of returning veterans. But lawmakers and labor officials have some theories:

• They want to take a break and either accept state unemployment benefits or take advantage of GI Bill educational assistance to enroll in college or trade schools.

• Some are entering the workforce for the first time and aren't adept at explaining their military skills to civilian employers.

• Some who saw combat in Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, which makes it difficult for them to work and makes employers leery of hiring them.

"Of course, there is an alarm," said Ron Fairnot, a Michigan state employee who helps find jobs for veterans in the greater Lansing area. "There are certain positions where you would not put an individual (with post-traumatic stress disorder)."

Those positions include jobs working with the public or with heavy machinery that makes lots of noise, Fairnot said.

Dustin Dockins of Rockford, a staff sergeant with the Army Reserve, didn't want to relax after he returned from a year of non-combat duty in Afghanistan in May 2005. Before being deployed, he had worked as a cabinet maker.

But Dockins, then 25, learned that finding a job stateside was tougher than he had anticipated.

"There was a lot of stress trying to get it all lined up," said Dockins, a father of four.

After almost three months of searching, he took a civilian job with the Army Reserve as administrator of a unit in Rockford.

Historically, veterans have enjoyed a lower unemployment rate than the population as a whole. Employers generally want to hire veterans, according to Charles Ciccolella, assistant secretary for veterans employment and training with the Department of Labor.

"They're disciplined and they come to work on time," Ciccolella said. "They've got leadership and management (skills)."

But every year since 1990, the jobless rate for veterans between ages 20 and 24 has been higher than the overall rate for that age range, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Labor Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs are collaborating on a survey of young veterans that the agencies hope will shed light on why so many are jobless.

Ciccolella said one attempt to solve the problem is a three-day workshop called the Transition Assistance Program that is offered to service members just before they leave the military. The Labor Department runs an employment segment of the workshop that includes training in resume writing, interviewing and salary negotiations.

Ciccolella said his goal is to get all departing service members to take the training. Currently, about 60% of departing service members take the workshop. They typically find their first civilian job three weeks earlier than non-participants, according to the Labor Department.

Veterans also can check in with one of 3,500 government-run employment offices across the country that give priority to veterans for job training and job placement. The Labor Department uses six regional offices to oversee the career centers' veterans services.

The federal agency sent $155 million to the states this year to help the job-placement efforts for veterans. Illinois received $6.4 million.

In Illinois, 62,486 veterans registered with the state Department of Employment Security for job placement and other services during the last 12 months, said Lane Knox, the state's veterans program coordinator.

Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, a member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, has taken an interest in the young veterans employment issue. He wants to put teeth into a requirement that government contractors advertise available jobs to veterans, so that the contractors are actively recruiting the veterans.

The freshman senator also is crafting legislation to make sure all returning veterans receive medical screening to catch post-traumatic stress disorder early, so they can begin treatment.

Mental health experts have said at least 15% of service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan will develop post-traumatic stress disorder, similar to the rate for Vietnam War veterans, according to a Government Accountability Office report in September 2004.

"We have to look at how do we work with both vets and employers to craft pathways to employment when they come out," Obama said.