Veterans finding nothing is easy about job market on the homefront

After serving as a sailor for 20 years, Dan Trew didn't want to get stuck in a boring office job, looking out a window and thinking about the places he had been and the things he had done in the Navy.

While he looked for a more permanent job, Trew delivered pizza in Groton and slept on his pastor's couch.

A submarine auxilaryman who served from 1991 until May, Trew found starting over in his 40s "a daunting challenge."

"I was collecting unemployment for the first time in my life, and I didn't feel right doing that, but you've got to do what you got to do to make ends meet and get by," said Trew, 47. "It was just tough."

Until he recently was hired at AAA, Trew was among a growing number of veterans finding it difficult to land a job.

While the nationwide unemployment rate continued its downward trajectory in December to 8.5 percent, the jobless rate for veterans who have served in the military since 9/11 rose to 13.1 percent.

More than 21 percent of female veterans who served recently and 7.7 percent of veterans of all eras are unemployed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"Sometimes I sit here and go, 'Why can't I get hired? What's wrong with me?'" said Richard Harris, 39, who served in the Navy from 1990 until October. "Did I do that for 21 years for nothing? It has to count for something."

Veterans say it's hard for them to explain their qualifications to employers. Their job descriptions in the military don't match the openings in civilian professions.

Some joined the service right after high school. Without a four-year college degree, they said, some employers won't even schedule an interview.

And sometimes, they said, they don't want to settle for a position that's not nearly as exciting as what they were doing in the military.

"I don't feel sorry for myself and I don't want anyone to pity me," said Joseph Richards, an Army veteran who lost his job as a technical writer in May 2008. "I'm very blessed. I just want a job. I want to go to work every day."

Hiring incentives

Federal and state governments are trying to get an estimated 900,000 unemployed veterans back to work by giving tax breaks to businesses that hire them.

The federal "VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011" offers a one-time tax credit of up to $5,600 for hiring a veteran or up to $9,600 for hiring a disabled veteran. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's jobs bill includes a tax credit of $900 per month for hiring a worker who is disabled, unemployed or a veteran.

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney said the nation needs to redouble its efforts to ensure that "people who wore the uniform of this country… find ways to transition into the civilian economy." The 2nd District Democrat held a press conference in Norwich last week to publicize the tax credits because many employers don't know about them.

Randy Taylor, division president of the U.S. Foods branch in Norwich, attended the press conference. He said afterward that his company is hiring truck drivers and warehouse workers and that he always looks at a candidate's qualifications first. Then a person's status as a veteran might be factored in.

"When you have two individuals who are equally qualified, and where a veteran may have this type of incentive associated with them, obviously the employer has to consider that as well," he said.

Stephen Plaszczynski found that even a career in the Coast Guard and more than a decade in the auto parts business didn't give him the qualifications he needed for the jobs that are available today. And the online applications process used by many employers doesn't allow him to show what he can do.

"It's very difficult to express the skills veterans have in that format," said Plaszczynski, of Uncasville. "I think if veterans could talk to people face to face, like we used to do in hiring situations, there would be a whole lot less veterans unemployed."

Plaszczynski, 54, has been looking for work since July 2010. He took a class on how to make homes more energy efficient but was unable to find work in that field. He is now learning to become a water treatment plant operator and he expects to work weekends in the spring at Lowe's.

"In the service you're taught to get the job done," he said. "The job right now is for me to find a job, so I'm going to get the job done."

The tax credits, he said, could help.

"Anything that's going to help get veterans jobs is a great thing," he said. "I'd like to see them do even more."

But Richards, who served as an Army truck driver from 1967 to 1969, was dubious that he would land a job because of a tax credit. Richards, 64, said employers are reluctant to hire him because of his age and because he does not have a college degree. He believes he has encountered anti-military prejudice as well.

"I just think what has to happen," Richards said, "is that these companies need to look at us veterans and realize we have something to bring to their company."

Richards, a resident of Pawcatuck, graduated from Waterford High School in 1966 and considered going back to school later on, but he said his career always seemed to get in the way. He said he spends nine to 12 hours a day, six days a week, sometimes seven, on the Internet looking for work.

"It's tough for us guys, but we're trained military. We just deal with it," he said. "I'm not bitter. It ain't worth it."

Starting the search early

Having taken on important, challenging and exciting assignments in the military, it's easy to get frustrated and disappointed with the job hunt, Donald Bardsley said.

"You were on a $70 million cocaine bust off the coast of Colombia, or in Iraq saving a comrade, and here you are, a year or two later, unemployed, looking and looking, and it doesn't seem like anyone will give you a chance," said Bardsley, a chief petty officer who is an office manager at the Coast Guard Academy. "You've gone from one extreme to the other, and I think that is a big let down."

Bardsley, 44, of Canterbury, knows that finding a job after he retires from the Coast Guard later this year will be difficult, so he's looking now. He said he doesn't expect any preferential treatment because he's a veteran; he just wants employers to recognize that he has talents that aren't typically found outside of the military.

"There are situations you've been put in where you have to make a split-second decision, and sometimes it can be a life-or-death decision," he said. "Those types of experiences give you unique leadership and decision-making skills."

Trew said he was surprised at how long it took him to find a job because he became adept at running mechanical systems in the Navy. He is excited about working as a field service technician for AAA and living in his own apartment in New London.

Sometimes a person's experiences in the military can have negative effects, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or other issues, which can complicate efforts to find work, the veterans said.

In the Navy, Harris said, he had eight different jobs at eight different places. He retired as a chief from the Naval Submarine Base in Groton, where he handled background investigations for security clearances.

"Sometimes some aspects were similar from one station to the next but my overall job title, scope and description was completely different, even including my last job," said Harris, of Branford, the Navy veteran. "Trying to explain that to somebody in the outside world, especially if they have no military experience whatsoever, is a challenge."

Like many of the other veterans, Harris said the job search has put stress on him, his family and his finances.

Companies in this economic climate, he said, can afford to be picky. He is hopeful that a second interview he has with a university this week will go well.

"What I wish I could tell companies is that I'm hungry. I want to work," Harris said. "A lot of people like to joke with me, 'Isn't it great sitting around at home all day long?' Well no, it's not. I'm not bringing in a paycheck either. It is harder finding a job than actually working a job."

Incentive to hire veterans

On Nov. 21, 2011, President Obama signed into law the VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011. This new law provides an expanded work opportunity tax credit to businesses that hire eligible unemployed veterans and for the first time also makes part of the credit available to tax-exempt organizations. Businesses claim the credit as part of the general business credit and tax-exempt organizations claim it against their payroll tax liability. The credit is available for eligible unemployed veterans who begin work on or after Nov. 22, 2011, and before Jan. 1, 2013.


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