Veterans employment assistance a growing need

After serving two deployments in Afghanistan, David Jones of Bowling Green now works at UPS, and will pursue a nursing degree at Southcentral Kentucky Community and Technical College. (Bac To Trong/Daily News)

David Jones worked jobs as a busboy and in fast food when he was a teenager. On his 18th birthday in 2009, he signed up for a different job: He joined the Marine Corps.

“I wanted to actually fight,” Jones said. “I didn’t want to do paperwork or drive people around. I wanted to actually fight in the war. I just felt like it was something I’m supposed to do. I’m supposed to grow up and join themilitary.”

Jones of Bowling Green served two deployments in Afghanistan and rose to the rank of corporal. He was honorably discharged from the Marines in June. Upon returning to the civilian sector, Jones knew he needed to devise a future for himself outside his military experience.

Kentucky has 2,000 to 3,200 veterans younger than 25 years old, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The state has 339,000 veterans of all ages.

The government has been scaling back troop numbers, resulting in a surge of veterans looking for jobs. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics refers to veterans who served on active duty at any time since September 2001 as Gulf War-era II veterans. The unemployment rate for Gulf War-era II veterans was 9 percent in 2013. That percentage has decreased – it was 12.1 percent in 2011 – but it’s still higher than average civilian unemployment rate – 6.2 percent as of July. In 2013, about 2.8 million of the nation’s 21.4 million veterans had served during Gulf War-era II.

“There are a lot of us coming back, ready to be normal,” Jones said. 

Before being discharged, Jones participated in a transition assistance program through the Marine Corps. Having not written a professional résumé or done an interview since he was a teenager, Jones was grateful for the help he got while in the program. The Marines also directed him toward resources and websites he could use to find a job. One of those websites was indeed.com.

“I’ve done four interviews since I got out,” Jones said.

Jones said his goal was to find a job within the first two months out of the military. He accomplished his goal when one of those four interviews led to employment. Jones was offered a job at UPS on Aug. 2. He started a couple weeks ago as a forklift operator.

Jones also will pursue a nursing degree at Southcentral Kentucky Community and Technical College when classes begin soon. He said he had a lot of ideas as a kid for what he might want to be when he grew up, but a corpsman Jones met while in the military encouraged him to look into the medical field.

Jones ultimately wants to be a trauma nurse.

“I like the idea of being able to save someone’s life if I can,” Jones said.

Other than being a busboy or fast-food worker, Jones’ only other work experience was as an infantryman. Although the military taught him leadership skills, Jones said one significant aspect to civilian life in particular can be challenging to deal with when transitioning back.

“They tell you everything to do (in the military). Once you get out, no one tells you what to do anymore,” Jones said.

Not all of Jones’ Marine friends have been as fortunate in the job hunt.

“Some of my friends have hit rock bottom, like bad, man,” Jones said, referring to buddies who have struggled finding employment for months or have gotten into drugs. “Some of my friends are on top of the world. I guess it all depends on the person.”

Jones said it’s important to remember that the numbers and percentages people often hear and see quoted are attached to real people who fought for the country.

“They don’t just become a statistic and go live in a van down by the river or something,” Jones said.

People who are married and have children get extra pay in the Marine Corps, Jones said, so that can be an incentive to stay rather than struggle with finding a job outside the military.

“Usually when that happens, people stay in. They’re stuck because they’re not going to be able to go out and find a job with as good of benefits or that pays as well,” Jones said.

The jobless rate for all veterans is 6.6 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2013, 722,000 veterans were unemployed, 35 percent of which were ages 25 to 44. Five percent were 18 to 25. 

“Let’s hope the economy goes up and not the homeless shelter numbers,” Jones said.

Veteran unemployment steadily increased starting in about 2007 from about 4.5 percent to a peak of 10 percent in October 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unemployment stayed in the upper 9 percent range for all of 2010 and started to come down in late 2011. The veteran jobless rate has gradually decreased since then.

Rick Wright, coordinator of Veterans Upward Bound at Western Kentucky University, said the number of veterans he has seen seeking postsecondary education has skyrocketed.

“We’ve had record-breaking numbers for the past three years,” Wright said.

During the 2008-09 school year, VUB had 99 veterans. The next year, that number rose to 120. In 2010-11, 126 veterans used the program. During the 2011-12 school year, 139 veterans participated. The year after that, VUB saw 165 veterans.

The final numbers for this year’s participants will be calculated after Sept. 30, but Wright said VUB has had 128 veterans so far.

“I attribute that primarily to all these service people coming back as a result of the military scaling back,” Wright said. “They’re getting out and wondering what their next step in life is. ... A lot of them are really petrified about going to college because they just don’t know where to begin.”

Pursuing education using the G.I. Bill is often a priority for veterans, Wright said. Like many civilians, veterans want to further their education in an effort to secure a good job.

“If they were an infantryman, there’s not a lot of demand for an infantryman in the civilian world,” Wright said.

Wright said the VUB staff tries to match veterans with schools and degrees that could lead to jobs that require skills similar to ones they learned in the military. Providing veterans education and getting them back to work benefits everyone by boosting the economy, Wright said. But more than that, he added, civilians as part of a “grateful nation” should care about helping veterans in any way.

“The least we can do for these brave men and women is to offer them a good education so they can get a good job,” Wright said.

Bob Wilson, chairman of the Southcentral Kentucky Community Blueprint Program, which aims to address the needs of veterans and their families, said that like Wright, he has seen a lot of veterans seeking assistance.

“Unfortunately, what we’re seeing is ... a lot of them are underprepared,” Wilson said. “The veterans who are coming out are not prepared for the civilian side of what they did in the military.”

Basic areas of need are résumé writing and interview skills.

Wilson, who spent 20 years in the Marine Corps and six years in the Tennessee National Guard, said veterans face the challenge of crossing over to civilian life in many ways, including mentally. In the military, a lot of veterans were gung ho about their service and may have a difficult time phasing off that mindset, Wilson said.

“I say to them, ‘Once you’re done with that, now what?’ ” Wilson said.

The military offers a rigid structure and chain of command, so re-entering the job sector as a civilian employee or employer usually takes some getting used to, Wilson said.

“You do what you’re told, you’re told what you do, and you do it to the best of your ability,” Wilson said. “In the civilian world, it’s not always like that.”

Beginning Sept. 1, a group called Vets-4-Vets will begin. That group will consist of veterans who can help each other with various issues, including treating employees like individuals rather than soldiers. That’s just one of the many hurdles veterans have to mentally scale, Wilson said. It helps that the American public is more accepting and respectful of returning servicemen and women than during the Vietnam War, but the personal struggles to transition back into civilian life still exist.

“If they can acclimate back to the civilian world, they can work in civilian employment,” Wilson said.

Servicemen and women who left the military with a high rank can be attractive to employers because of their leadership, discipline and responsibility, but anyone can benefit from help transitioning, Wilson said.

Regardless of the military scaling back, Wilson said he estimates that veterans of all ages and knowledge and skill levels will be returning in the coming years, which means the need for assistance in transitioning will increase.

“Although we’re proud of our military heritage, without a doubt, we have to adapt to civilian life if we’re going to maintain out here,” Wilson said.

— For more information on Veterans Upward Bound, call 270-745-5310. The office is in Jones-Jagers Hall, Room 127, at Western Kentucky University. For more information on the Community Blueprint Program, call Wilson at 270-999-3693. The group meets at 2 p.m. the last Wednesday of each month at the ALIVE Center, 1818 U.S. 31-W By-Pass. Vets-4-Vets will start at 7 p.m. Sept 1 at the Wellness Connection Center, 428 Center St. Call 270-796-2606 for more information.

— Follow business reporter Monica Spees on Twitter at twitter.com/BGDNbusiness or visit bgdailynews.com.

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