By Emma Anderson
Current economic conditions are making it tougher for some military veterans as they return to civilian work life. Some can't find work and others have discovered that their former jobs no longer exist.
Steve Garbett, a veteran's employment representative with the Virginia Employment Commission, said many companies wound up having to fill positions they had held for employees who went on active duty. That could lead to a variety of transition problems for veterans who have been out of the workforce for some time, he said.
"They just don't know how to go about finding work and what the world of work is like out there right now," he said.
There are resources to help, Garbett said, and wider interest in helping veterans adjust to civilian life.
The commission held a Veterans Day career fair to help unemployed veterans connect with potential employers. The fair, held at the Richmond Raceway Complex on Nov. 13, brought in more than 100 employers as well as organizations aimed at helping veterans reintegrate into the working world.
Representatives from Wal-Mart attended the career fair because the company is supportive of veterans, said Angel Perez, a veteran and people manager for Wal-Mart.
"We like to employ veterans because they have a lot of discipline, the relationship building they gain in the military and their dedication to task," said Perez, a Gulf War veteran.
There was also information at the career fair about educational opportunities for veterans who want to return to school. One of the schools, Bluefield College, accepts military benefits and offers a military discount to those in active duty, Althea Brooks, an admissions counselor, said.
"We're here to present an educational opportunity," Brooks said. "Sometimes veterans realize when they get to a career fair that they're not prepared to enter the workforce."
The Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice sent representatives to the fair because of a partnership with the employment commission, said Krystal Walker, a department representative. The department works with the commission to conduct mock interviews and to answer any employment questions veterans might have.
"Not only do we help VEC, but it also allows us to get our name out for potential future employees," Walker said.
Another challenge is to help veterans who joined the military when they were young and have little experience with civilian jobs. Many veterans aren't familiar with office politics and they don't know how to sell themselves to employers because they are used to being promoted solely on merit, said Nathan Ainspan, editor of the reference handbook "Returning Wars' Wounded, Injured, and Ill."
"If you're in a fraternity you learn to schmooze with people versus working in the field and working on merit," Ainspan said. "That could be an issue especially in a highly politicized office. …They are so used to their merit speaking for itself. Someone who gets injured at age 30 is now dismissed from the service and has no clue how to get a job."
An unemployed veteran may also face discrimination because employers can subconsciously discriminate against a physically or mentally injured veteran, Ainspan said.
"People are really freaked out about psychological disabilities," Ainspan said. "In an extreme situation, they think, €˜What will this person do? Will they kill me?' That kind of thought, when they look at disability research, that's always been the biggest factor in preventing people from getting jobs and then getting promoted in jobs."
Getting a job is now considered an integral part of rehabilitation for all types of disabilities, and that part of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is that the person can feel depressed and that they cannot accomplish anything, Ainspan said.
"The advantage of how a job can be therapeutic is it positively reinforces you,” Ainspan said. “You realize that every morning you're getting up, you're leaving the house, you're going out and you're getting things done. The job can help you faster reintegrate into civilian world."
The employment commission has a registry system that matches veterans with employers with job openings that fit their skills. Garbett said veterans received "priority of service." That means they get first notice when the commission gets a job request and before the job listing is released to the public.
"It gives them a little bit of a leg up, maybe a day's head start on somebody," Garbett said. "First in can be first considered, and then they get the job."
Another resource is the Job Accommodation Network provided by the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy. Anne Hirsh, co-director of the network, said her colleagues worked with veterans who needed assistance about how to disclose a disability to an employer or how to request accommodations for a disability. Hirsh said that some employees had run into problems with post-traumatic stress disorder while at work.
One person had difficulty at his workstation because he couldn't see people coming up to him and was constantly startled by people standing behind him and talking to him, Hirsh said. "It sounds simplistic, but we would look at ways of how to talk about this with your employer," he said.
If employers can keep an open mind about hiring veterans, they would find that many skills learned in the military are transferable to the civilian workforce, Ainspan said. Employers are usually looking for someone who shows up on time, respects authority and gets the job done, he said.
"For virtually all service members, that is part of their DNA," Ainspan said. "It's almost amusing when you talk to them and you tell them those things and they're like, €˜Everybody does that.' And it's like no, very few people have those qualities."