Help arrives for our returning troops

It's tough being unemployed, no doubt. But imagine serving your country and then coming home unemployed.

Veterans coming back from Vietnam had great difficulties adapting to the workforce, and unfortunately little has changed since then. Add to that our sinking economy and you can imagine how hard it is for the 300,000 troops who complete their active duty every year to try and find a job.

The military will teach you a lot of things: responsibility, prioritizing, teamwork, discipline, problem solving, and adaptability. But for most soldiers, there are no lessons about how to negotiate a salary, how to navigate your way up the corporate ladder, or even how to effectively network. On top of that, many employers discriminate against veterans, believing them to be more susceptible to mental health problems. While Reserve soldiers typically have job protection from the Uniformed Service members Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), it's estimated that unemployment among Active Duty veterans is 2% above the national average."Investing resources in our nation's veterans is a smart and patriotic way to improve the American economy," said Paul Rieckhoff, Executive Director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). It's a no-brainer that by supporting our troops now, through education and job care, we'll be pumping money back into our fragile economy in the long run.

For starters, corporate America needs to better understand the capabilities of service men and women. Tom Tarantino, Policy Associate at IAVA, left the Army as a Captain in 2007 after ten years of service. It took him ten months to find a job. While trying to explain to prospective employers how having run three separate multi-million dollar budgets and managing 400 employees would translate well to a management position, he was mostly met with blank stares, as employers couldn't understand the military experience or lingo. While he would almost always make it to the second or third interview, he would often lose to a person right out of grad school, someone who had zero management experience.

"People who have led in the military generally in every case are better at personal management and team leadership," says Tarantino. "Day one you enter the military, you're trained how to be a small team leader." And not to belittle the work of corporate America, but Tarantino says, "the amount of multi-tasking, personal management, and pressure you go through on a day-to-day basis in the military would make most people in corporate America cry."

It's a conversation that needs to happen with employers now, and perhaps can be jump-started with Obama's new stimulus package. There are specific veteran provisions in the stimulus plan, such as the Work Opportunity Tax Credit for employers who hire vets, which WalletPop's Aaron Crowe recently dissected. Meanwhile here is a list of resources already available to unemployed vets.

Jobs for Vets
Once employers make an active effort to hire vets, they'll find that military skills can easily be translated into the civilian workforce. Of course there are the obvious careers for young vets, like cops and teachers, who have to start from the bottom in their new careers. Some skills are more easily transferable than others, such as a medic becoming an EMT. Colonels and majors can often easily find work at defense contractors or communications firm. A few companies offer specific career paths for vets, such as Home Depot's Operation Career Front or GE's Junior Officer Leadership Program. Helmets to Hardhats connects vets with jobs in construction. For vets who are interested in starting their own franchises, The International Franchise Association offers Vet Fran to help make operations more affordable.

Unemployment
Soldiers who leave the military with an honorable discharge are automatically eligible for unemployment benefits, and can apply as soon as they leave service.

Education
"Education is the most effective tool known to combat unemployment," says Tarantino, whose organization was a leader in the fight for GI Bill Reform. The new GI Bill, signed last June, covers post-9/11 active duty soldiers, paying for 40-100% of public college education, based on the length of active duty service. There's also a $1,000 stipend for books and provisions for housing. The bill aims to make education affordable for the 1.7 million troops sent to Iraq and Afghanistan, and Veterans Affairs estimates that 580,000 will benefit from the new bill in the first year alone. To calculate your benefits, go here.

Training
Transitions Assistance Program (TAP) is a federal program that conducts three-day workshops addressing how to interview, how to search for a job, and how to prepare resumes and cover letters. It's geared toward younger soldiers rather than career veterans. A new online program, TurboTap.org, seeks to gain more recruits as veterans can access the resources on their own time. Another federal program, the Department of Labor's VETS Program provides grants to state and local agencies to provide training to low-income, homeless, or disabled vets. Over at the Small Business Administration, The Veterans Business Outreach Program (VBOP) offers a variety of training programs for vets who want to start their own business.

Placement

And once you have your resume perfected, you could try your luck at any number of headhunting agencies that specialize in veteran placement. Tarantino singles out the following groups: The Lucas group, Bradley Morris, Orion International, and Cameron Brooks.

The Stimulus
Even more than the Work Opportunity Tax for employers, Tarantino is hoping that vets won't limit themselves to the specific vet provisions in the stimulus, but will be able take advantage of the rest of the package. The most obvious fit is the green collar industry in the works. "It's a new industry that veterans can go to," he says. "The army tends to be very outdoors. Developing new ideas, being innovative and thinking outside the box are all things the army teaches during its professional development." Additionally, the new green jobs initiative would be a natural fit for the Navy or West Point, which both breed engineers. Some green to green organizations are already popping up to retrain vets in the green energy sector, such as Veterans Green Jobs. A green job corps is an exciting frontier for all of us, but let's hope that vets are given first dibs.

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