When Trish Leonard left the Army National Guard last fall, she expected getting a job would be easy. Her skills as an aircraft mechanic, acquired while serving in the Air Guard, would qualify her for a job with Empire Airlines in Coeur d’Alene or a similar employer, she thought.
But Leonard quickly learned she needed a pair of civilian certificates to qualify. As a result, she has enrolled in Spokane Community College in aerospace science and is anticipating months of class work. It’s a program that gives preference to veterans.
“It’s going to be really hard in the next year and a half,” said Leonard, 39.
She is among thousands of Inland Northwest veterans making the transition to civilian life, hoping to claim good jobs with decent wages. One in 5 unemployed vets are from the post-9/11 conflicts. The unemployment rate is higher among older veterans.
For any vet, the journey to a job can be confusing and slow, beginning with the decompression involved in leaving military life.
On the positive side, multiple resources are available for veterans, especially at the conclusion of the Iraq War and as the war in Afghanistan winds down.
“You are not out there on your own,” said Stephanie Rosebrook, a veterans specialist with the Washington state WorkSource employment program.
A veteran herself, Rosebrook said she went through the ordeal of negotiating the maze of possibilities for job seekers.
“I got horribly depressed. I got tired of hearing ‘No,’ ” she said.
In Spokane County, an estimated 2,000 veterans are unemployed and seeking work, according to the state Department of Employment Security. Of those, about 1,500 were drawing unemployment checks as of January.
The overall unemployment rate for veterans in Spokane County closely tracks the jobless rate for the general population – around 9 percent – said Doug Tweedy, regional economist for the department.
Idaho does not keep track of the number of unemployed veterans by county. However, the state pays unemployment claims to about 300 veterans in Kootenai County, state officials said.
Nationally, there were 770,000 veterans seeking work in February, for an unemployment rate of 7 percent. That’s an improvement from 9.2 percent a year earlier and more than a point better than the national unemployment rate of 8.3 percent.
Many employers are eager to consider applications from veterans. Their military training often results in workers who are problem solvers willing to follow rules. Government agencies, especially those in the federal government, give preference to veterans in hiring decisions.
Private-sector employers have found success with vets, too.
“We truly find they work very well in teams,” said Jeff Benesch, vice president at Trans-System Inc., a nationwide trucking company based in Spokane.
“We see people who come from positions where they are leaders, so they have leadership abilities,” Benesch said, adding that veterans are often good at handling job stress.
“We think it is good business to hire these individuals,” he said.
Trans-System operates a range of trucking divisions with nearly 1,000 employees and owner-operators. It has a training subsidiary that teaches veterans the skills they need to get their commercial driver’s licenses.
The driver training takes advantage of grants available for veterans as well as business tax credits that can help subsidize the cost of training and hiring veterans, Benesch said.
Among the veteran benefit programs available to businesses is the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, which pays up to $5,600 toward an unemployed veteran’s first-year wages, and even more for disabled veterans.
Some veterans also may be eligible for Washington unemployment compensation while undergoing training.
The transportation industry is among the fields that veterans should consider, employment officials said. Others where hiring is strong are advanced manufacturing, professional and technical fields, and health care, Tweedy said.
A ‘lonely road’
Steven Hook, 38, chose health care.
Hook said he was stationed with the Marines in Korea in 1999 when he suddenly lost all hearing in his left ear and 40 percent in his right. His dream to be a career Marine died, and he had to learn to accept the loss and move on.
He was discharged with a 30 percent medical disability. Hook dropped into civilian life with a small pension and started working and going to school. He took advantage of vocational rehabilitation and work-study programs through the Department of Veterans Affairs. He also worked for a boys home as a counselor.
Eventually, Hook said, he earned a master’s degree in social work from Walla Walla University. His goal is to become a VA counselor.
“I want to work with these guys with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and traumatic brain injuries,” he said.
As he approaches his goal, Hook said he looks back and sees how difficult the transition has been.
“It’s been really, really tough. A kind of lonely road,” made more difficult because of the hearing loss, he said.
The biggest challenge is adjusting to civilian life, Hook and others said.
Veterans to some degree have to reboot their minds away from a military mode to be able to think and talk like civilians. They may not relate well to people who have never been in the military.
“People don’t think like I was thinking,” Hook said. “But I had to figure it out.”
Skills are key
Pat O’Halloran, veteran transition coordinator for SCC’s aviation program, said the federal government is spending $20 million over the next three years to increase training opportunities in aviation programs around the state, including Spokane’s. That will provide class space statewide for an additional 2,100 students in what’s known as the Air Washington consortium.
Aerospace job prospects are good, O’Halloran said. Most students who earn machining certificates get hired, he added. And veterans get preferences for enrollment and hiring, O’Halloran recently told a pair of job seekers at Spokane’s WorkSource office.
“I know it’s depressing to go through the job search, but it can happen,” he said.
Ethan Edsall, who has been out of the military since 2001 after a short deployment for Operation Enduring Freedom, said he would be happy with a job as a cook. He has a young daughter at home and has been receiving temporary state assistance as well as food stamps.
“I’m game for anything,” Edsall said. Looking for a job “is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, and I went through basic training.”
Being told “no” leaves him feeling unappreciated as a veteran who served “and never asked for anything,” he said.
Employment experts say the job market is toughest for veterans like Edsall, who lack advanced job skills. They recommend career screening and counseling, available through WorkSource, colleges and other agencies.
In many cases, veterans need to learn the basics, like how to write a résumé and techniques for getting a foot in the door for an interview.
Job searches involve finding opportunities and honing the short verbal pitch that will give an employer confidence to make the hire, employment counselors said.
Complicating the job search, veterans may be battling depression, PTSD or relationship problems. Counseling is available to help, the counselors said.
Bryan Dooley, a veterans specialist at WorkSource, said he left the military in 2007 and went through the same experience as today’s unemployed veterans.
“You think you have the tools,” Dooley said. “The reality is you need some help.”