By Beth Brown
San Antonio Express-News
September 20, 2012
The transition into civilian life hasn't been easy for Michael Jenkins.After 23 years in the Army, he retired as a sergeant first class in February. He has been unemployed ever since.
Jenkins is not alone in his struggle. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that while veterans have a nonseasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 6.6 percent, Gulf War-era II veterans — or those who have served in the military since Sept. 11, 2001 — have an unemployment rate of 10.9 percent. The country's overall unemployment rate is about 8 percent.
During his military service, Jenkins said he suffered three strokes that have limited his physical abilities and caused a traumatic brain injury.
Although he attends rehabilitation therapy four days a week, those disabilities have become the biggest obstacles to his landing a job, he said.
“I didn't think it would be this hard,” said Jenkins, 45, who is a single father of three. “Everyone has issues with transitioning. My issue was I didn't know. I didn't know it would be like this.”
Chris Suter is another veteran looking for a job. The 48-year-old retired in March after spending four years in the Marines and 17 years in the Army. He would prefer a federal job where he could apply his military expertise, but after sending out at least one résumé a day since April, he's searching statewide for anything.
“I could live on a minimum-wage job with a company who wants me there tomorrow,” Suter said.
Texas is home to 1.7 million veterans, and about 158,000 of those are in Bexar County. Military job fairs are springing up around San Antonio in an attempt to connect veterans to employers and to help veterans tap into their employment potential.
“I worked with a veteran who spent four years in the Marine Corps who said that he didn't learn anything that was marketable for a job,” said Laura Arthur, operations specialist at Texas Veterans Commission. “He was a payroll specialist (in the Marine Corps), and I told him payroll is pretty much payroll so that is a marketable skill. But sometimes (veterans) don't realize that.”
Some veterans struggle to translate their military experience into résumé terms that makes sense to civilian employers.
Military acronyms, letters, numbers and titles, such as NCO and E-7, need to be translated into terms such as “manager” or “supervisor” to help employers understand what veterans have done.
“We run into employers all the time who generally want to offer veterans jobs, but they're confounded by what they see on résumés,” Arthur said.
And when veterans struggle to communicate their abilities, they may end up at jobs they do not want.
“I do think there is a disconnect, but I think that's more about people not being able to explain why they're qualified for the job,” Arthur said. “I think veterans may be able to say they were an E-7 in the military, and employers say, ‘Well I've got this box job for you.' (Veterans) should say, ‘I was a midlevel manager and had a budget of $700,000.'”
Ramon Pina, a veteran's employment representative at Texas Workforce Commission, helped organize a military job fair held Sept. 12. More than 65 employers attended, including GE, USAA and Tyson Foods. He estimated 800 veterans and active military came to check out their options.
Jenkins has applied for several jobs and attended multiple job fairs, many times with his youngest daughter in tow. Last week, he was at the RecruitMilitary Veteran Hiring Fair. So far, he hasn't landed a single interview, he said. He lives off his military retirement and disability.
While in the military, he worked as a mechanic, but his disability no longer allows him to perform labor-intensive jobs. With an undergraduate degree in computer science from Jackson State University, Jenkins is looking to land an information technology job. But his degree isn't enough. That's why he is seeking computer certification to help his chances.
“I don't want a job. I want a career like the military,” he said.
Todd Nelson was a senior maintenance adviser in the Army until he retired in 2010, three years after a suicide bomb in Afghanistan sent him to Fort Sam Houston for eight weeks of inpatient care and 36 months of outpatient care for burn treatment.
During that time, he underwent 43 life-saving and reconstructive surgeries. He also chipped away at the degree he received in November 2011 for occupational education with an emphasis in automotives from Wayland Baptist University.
When it came to finding a job, all the longtime maintenance adviser could think to do was look for work around cars. That was the only nonmilitary career he thought he was qualified for.
“What do civilians do with a senior maintenance manager?” Nelson asked. “What kind of jobs are there out there for infantry men, or petroleum specialists?”
Nelson was unemployed for 16 months before accepting a job as a recruiter with USAA, where he's worked since December.
One in four of USAA's hires are veterans or spouses of veterans. The company has had tables at the city's recent job fairs, the RecruitMilitary Veteran Hiring Fair and the San Antonio Military Community job fair.
Andrea Holland, human resources manager at West Asset Management, said the company has been attending military job fairs for more than a decade.
“We've hired thousands of veterans,” Holland said. “They are a great group to hire.” She cited the benefits of veterans' “soft skills,” such as dependability and work ethic.
There also are tax credits available to employers who hire veterans. The Labor Department offers the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, where employers can get $9,600 for each new disabled veteran hired who has been unemployed for six months.
They can get smaller amounts for hiring nondisabled veterans or those who have been unemployed for shorter amounts of time.
“Our society, our hearts melt for veterans,” Nelson said. “But you (veterans) need help. It's way too big of a mountain to climb alone.”
Valentino Lucio contributed to this report.