The Chicago Tribune

Help returning veterans find place in the workforce

Experts weigh in on stereotypes, strengths of service members returning from overseas

Deborah Reid, of Edward Hines, Jr. VA Hospital, gives information on finding government jobs to veteran Jarriel Walker of Chicago during a job fair in 2011 at Richard J. Daley College. (Michael Tercha, Chicago Tribune / July 2, 2012)

 

Summer carries with it a spirit of patriotism. Whether it's backyard barbecues or Fourth of July parades and fireworks, the season seems infused with a sense that we're lucky to be free.

We have veterans to thank for that freedom, and as more and more young men and women return from Iraq and Afghanistan, it's worth looking at how they can better transition from military life to the everyday working world.

While veterans' skills often translate to workplace success, many younger veterans are struggling to find work.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for Iraq- and Afghanistan-era veterans was 12.7 percent in May, compared with a national unemployment rate of 8.2 percent.

Experts say there are a variety of reasons for this, ranging from a lack of preparedness for the transition to civilian life to an unwarranted concern by employers that all veterans carry psychological baggage that could lead to on-the-job problems.

Let's address the latter first:

Harry Croft is a Texas-based psychiatrist, an expert inpost-traumatic stress disorder(PTSD) and a veteran. He also is co-author the book "I Always Sit With My Back to the Wall: Managing Traumatic Stress and Combat PTSD" and has worked with more than 7,000 veterans over 14 years.

Croft said about 20 percent of the soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq will suffer some degree of PTSD, which can range from mild to debilitating. So it's critical for both sides to fully understand the disorder.

"I started giving lectures on what PTSD is, and I started getting questions from people, people at the managerial level, who would say, 'We want to hire these veterans, but we can't ask if they have PTSD,'" Croft said. "Some of the questions were just staggering. HR people said things like, 'We're worried that violence could erupt in the workplace or whether other employees could catch PTSD.'"

PTSD is a complex anxiety disorder, but it usually can be managed effectively.

Croft said it's incumbent on employers to learn about PTSD and its symptoms. That will help them better understand what a veteran might be experiencing in day-to-day life. He also said companies should have someone available for veterans to speak with in confidence, preferably a person familiar with PTSD.

"With the number of veterans entering the workforce, one of the things we have to start doing is training mental health professionals who work with companies to deal with these problems," Croft said. "That will make the employer a better employer."

Veterans who have PTSD need to make sure they know their own symptoms, their triggers and the best ways to cope with workplace problems. Veterans going into a new job should have a support system, whether it's online or a peer group. Croft's website,MyBackToTheWall.com, contains good information on PTSD as well as links to articles on the subject.

As for preparedness, Gene Link, an Army veteran and senior consultant at BPI group, a management and human resources consulting firm, gave me a job-searching timeline for soldiers getting ready to leave the service.

Link said that one of the biggest problems is matching employer needs with a veteran's abilities. For example, a veteran's leadership and management skills might be a perfect fit for a job opening, but that won't matter if the employer doesn't understand the military work he or she did.

This is his recommended timeline, edited for space:

•One year before leaving the service: Start creating social media profiles and connecting with old friends and former co-workers. Those networks can be leveraged once you get closer to leaving the service. Also, start thinking about skills you've developed that can be used in the civilian workplace and identify companies that require those skills. Start building a detailed resume, one that highlights each job, rank or responsibility held in the military.

•Six months before leaving the service: Develop a network of close family, friends, former work contacts and other veterans, and seek advice on finding jobs. Be ready to send them a complete resume. Ask for additional names of people who might be helpful in the job hunt. Start practicing interviewing skills with friends who are willing to provide good feedback.

•Three months before leaving the service: Start sending out resumes and cover letters. Reconnect with contacts on your social networks. Send a resume to high school or college friends on LinkedIn and Facebook, asking whether they know of any openings. Follow Twitter accounts posting jobs for veterans, such as @HireOurHeroes and @HireHeroesUSA.

•Upon leaving the service: If you don't have a job lined up, fear not. Look at your resume and find areas where it might help to beef up your skills. Seek additional certifications and technical training related to the work you hope to do, and keep reaching out to people through social networks and face to face.

This is a rough time for anyone to find work, and veterans are certainly not looking to be hired simply because it seems like the patriotic thing to do.

My hope is that the hiring issues that are the result of misunderstandings or poor communication can be remedied. And the tremendous personal skills and traits so many of these men and women possess — focus, the ability to work as part of a team, loyalty — are recognized and embraced.

TALK TO REX: Ask workplace questions — anonymously or by name — and share stories with Rex Huppke at IJustWorkHere@tribune.com, follow him on Twitter via @RexWorksHere and find more at chicagotribune.com/ijustworkhere.