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Returning from War to Fight for Jobs

Maryland veterans talk about getting passed over for jobs—and how to change that.

Stephanie Gilbert of Pasadena served six years as an Arabic linguist and was an Army intelligence officer in Afghanistan before being honorably discharged last year. The former staff sergeant is now pursuing a degree in financial economics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

But when it came time for the 27-year-old veteran to seek financial services internships this summer, Gilbert was shocked when she was passed over. Twice.

“I’m 27 years old and I’m applying for internships,” she said. “It’s disconcerting when a 19-year-old gets the internship instead of me. It’s like, ‘What?’”   

With a resume stacked with wartime leadership experience, a 3.8 GPA and Arabic fluency, Gilbert said she assumed she would have been at the top the list.

She wasn’t.

And, she’s not the only veteran home from war who now faces a new battle: finding jobs in an economy hobbled, in part, by the cost of waging two wars overseas for the past decade.

In Maryland, the 8.9 percent unemployment rate among the 28,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans is higher than the state’s overall average. Joblessness for that same group nationally is much higher.

Some veterans have reinvented themselves entirely—such as the injured soldier featured in the accompanying Pulitzer Prize winning video on the Huffington Post, which ran on Patch.com. Many soldiers such as Gilbert are returning to college to finish degrees and build new careers. Others are turning to state and local government for help.

Many efforts are under way across Maryland, including in Prince George's County, to help unemployed veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq find jobs.

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and other state and education leaders have made helping veterans attain degrees and establish careers in both the public and private sectors a top priority.

“While as a nation we have come a long way since the time of Vietnam, and we do a much better job of welcoming home our veterans, still a lot of it unfortunately is lip service,” said Brown, who has been a member of the U.S. Army, both active and reserve, for nearly 28 years.

Brown said employers are hesitant to hire or rehire veterans because of fear of future deployments and “lack of understanding of the skill sets that veterans bring to the workforce.”

Know of a business that is doing a good job hiring veterans? Tell us in comments.

To help overcome that stigma, every county in Maryland has a One-Stop Career Center that has a representative dedicated specifically to helping veterans find jobs.

Prince George's County has two locations: 1100 Mercantile Lane, Suite 100, Largo; and 312 Marshall Avenue, Suite 604, Laurel. 

This is the first in a series of Patch articles examining the employment issues Maryland veterans face in a fragile economy. In the coming weeks, Patch will ask veterans to publish their profiles on our sites as part of an effort to promote the skills of those soldiers who hail from or have settled in the Free State.

Nationally, Iraq/Afghanistan veterans, especially those in their early 20s, have shouldered a disproportionate amount of the nation’s economic pain.

NBC News, which is working with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on a special project to help veterans find jobs, has reported that the unemployment rate is at 30 percent for veterans younger than the age of 25, compared to the national unemployment rate of 8.3 percent.

The White House and others have taken notice. The issues of veterans and their families have been at the forefront of national conversations, with First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, wife of the vice president, promoting the one-year anniversary this month of the “Joining Forces” initiative, which supports military families.

Often, as supporters of the initiative point out, soldiers face daunting challenges when they return to civilian life, including injury and disability. But many go on to find fulfilling careers. (See the accompanying video for one such story, as told by the Huffington Post in a Pulitzer-prize winning series, "Beyond the Battlefield.")

“Army leadership—if it’s taught me anything, it’s that you’re competent, confident and agile,” said Mike Ball, a 23-year-old political science major at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and an intelligence analyst who served in Iraq from 2009 to 2010.

 “You could put anyone in the military in a leadership position [in a business] and they would outperform any civilian in that same position,” Ball said.

But it’s not that simple, Ball and a group of fellow veterans noted in recent interviews, mindful of the 2011 average unemployment rate of 8.9 percent in Maryland among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

That's higher than Maryland's overall 2011 average unemployment rate of 7 percent, state data shows, though it's lower than the national average unemployment rate in 2011 for that group—12.1 percent, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Jerry Boden, chief of staff for the Maryland Department of Veteran Affairs, said "many of the Iraq/Afghanistan veterans want to go to college and/or take an extended amount of time off after they return from combat,” which, in turn, can lead to additional challenges.

Experts agree that part of the problem is a lack of understanding among businesses about how military skills can translate into the private sector.

“That’s a stressor for our veterans,” said Fritzie Charné-Merriwether, the special assistant to the UMBC vice president for student affairs who works on veterans’ issues. “They have all this great experience and backgrounds. Sometimes, it’s difficult for someone not exposed to that to understand what they bring to the table.”

In Maryland, state leaders said they have been working to close that gap.

In 2010, Brown announced what he called a “Warrior to Worker” initiative, which is a coordinated effort to hire more veterans in state government and promote employment opportunities throughout Maryland. 

Since July of 2011, state agencies documented the hiring of at least 64 veterans, said Marc Goldberg, Brown's spokesperson, but that is probably one-tenth the actual number hired amid state outreach efforts, other state officials said.

By identifying themselves on state applications and submitting honorable discharge documents, veterans can get preference in state hiring, said Mark Townend, director of the recruitment and examination division in the Maryland Department of Budget and Management.

Townend said state government will have a better picture of the number of veterans hired with the implementation of an online job application system.

“A lot of times with veterans, they don’t say they are veterans; they’ll compete on equal hiring,” Townend said.

There are also more efforts under way to connect Maryland veterans with federal jobs, as well as to promote jobs and job fairs, including one occurring April 30 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the 5th Regiment Armory in Baltimore for veterans interested in working for the Maryland Department of Transportation, or in other transportation jobs, state officials said.

Counties are also taking measures to help veterans get jobs.

Anne Arundel, Montgomery and Prince Georges counties, as well as Baltimore County, are among those that give veterans preferences in hiring for public sector jobs.

The Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs also maintains a list of companies that have specifically said they want to hire veterans. It is distributed across the state.

At UMBC, Ball, who is still completing his political science major, said he has been focusing on networking as a way to make himself more marketable.

He is the chairman of the Veterans Military Affairs Caucus in the Young Democrats of Maryland organization and is the president of the new UMBC group, the Student Veterans Association.

Through his work, he encourages fellow veterans to branch out and talk to others who haven’t served in the military. He advises veterans to hone their resumes to highlight how their experience overseas—where they were in charge of “millions of dollars of equipment, and people’s lives during a high stress job”—translates to the civilian job market.

“Go to events,” he said. “Yeah, it’s nice to talk with your buddies at a bar, but branch out. Don’t stay in that same bubble."

Next: A veterans' job fair. What do potential employers really think about vets?       

Terry Griffith May 04, 2012 at 12:36 PM
I spent 30 years in the US Army Reserves, and am currently a member of a reknown national veterans organization. That said, there is a type of military reservist sometimes refered to as a "career reservist." This is a person who seeks out and volunteers for every short term active duty tour he can, and expects his civilian employer to allow him to park his butt at the civilian workplace during intermissions of his military reserve career. The career reservist takes an abusive, "Oh, by the way, hold my job. I'll only be gone for four months this time, not six like the last time." The civilian employer is obligated to do just that. While a government employer can lose money this way, and a large corporation might be able to suck it up, this situation becomes problematic for a small business employer or one that operates on a small profit margin.

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