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Programs help to nudge unemployment among veterans downward

| Tuesday, April 15, 2014, 11:24 p.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Mark Corbin, 28, a veteran of the U.S. Army who served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, works at the AT&T store in Monroeville.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Mark Corbin, 28, a veteran of the U.S. Army who served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, works at the AT&T store in Monroeville.

The two months that Mark Corbin spent searching for a job were as stressful as his time in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Corbin was retiring after more than seven years in the Army. A government job he had lined up fell through and, after sending out more than 100 applications for everything from retail security to bail bonds jobs, he got barely a response.

“It was a race against the clock to feed my family,” said Corbin, 28, of Monroeville, a husband and father of two.

Then, through a friend of his wife's, he learned that AT&T might have an opening. Not only did he have the required skills, but the company was actively recruiting veterans. He applied, interviewed and was hired as a sales consultant.

“I definitely believe that AT&T saw that (military experience) as a true asset,” he said.

The telecommunications giant hopes to hire 10,000 veterans nationwide in the next five years and is trying to fill 146 positions across Pennsylvania.

Many of those jobs, be it in sales or as technicians, match well with the training veterans had during their service, AT&T spokeswoman Brandy Bell-Truskey said. They are positions that require self-discipline and teamwork, hallmarks of military training.

“We find that the folks in the military have gained skills that are a good fit for AT&T,” Bell-Truskey said. “It's not only the right thing to do, but it makes sense.”

AT&T is not the only company extending a hand to veterans. Amazon and Wal-Mart actively recruit employees with military experience and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce organizes hundreds of job fairs every year through its “Hiring Our Heroes” program.

These efforts have helped nudge unemployment among veterans downward, but people who have recently left the military continue to struggle.

The unemployment rate for veterans last year was 6.6 percent, better than the national rate for civilians of 7.2 percent, according to the Labor Department. Pennsylvania's veteran unemployment was higher at 7.7 percent.

Those who are struggling the most to find work are younger veterans like Corbin. About 9 percent of the 2.8 million Americans who served in the military since September 2001 were out of work last year.

There is a strong link between wartime deployments and veterans' ability to find work, even if nobody knows exactly why, according to economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.

War experiences could affect veterans' physical or psychological ability to transition into civilian labor market, Fed economists Jason Faberman and Taft Foster said. The trauma of war could persuade fewer veterans to re-enlist, forcing more people into a civilian labor market when their skills may be better suited to a military career.

Programs that help veterans craft résumés and search for jobs are only part of the solution, experts say. More employers must be convinced that veterans are worth the investment.

“Part of it is having an awareness of the skills that veterans bring,” said James Schmeling, managing director for the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University.

A lot of veterans have worked with heavy machinery, making them a good fit for manufacturing and transportation industries, Schmeling said. Some dealt with highly technical equipment in the service.

More than a third of all veterans end up going into management or some kind of professional occupation, according to Labor Department data. Sales and office occupations make up the next largest proportion of veteran hiring at 17 percent, followed by transportation (16.5 percent), and construction and maintenance jobs (14 percent).

More than half of the 3,600 veterans AT&T hired last year were technicians.

Corbin not only had technical expertise, but he is a good communicator. He worked in the Army as an investigator gathering military intelligence, talking to people. It is why he applied for a sales job.

“Sales is probably my best bet,” he said, “because my job was to talk to people in the military.”

Companies say they want to hire veterans and yet often overlook them if the message doesn't get down to hiring managers, said Dan Goldenberg, executive director for the Call of Duty Endowment, which funds organizations that help veterans find jobs.

Veterans need help beyond what military transition programs offer, which tend to focus on interviewing and resume writing, he said.

Goldenberg has been to job fairs and heard recruiters ask veterans what they want to do. Veterans respond: “I'll do anything,” he said, which is the wrong answer.

“In the military, that's a virtue,” Goldenberg said. “But to recruiters, that's a problem. They think, this is a person who isn't focused.”

AT&T has programs aimed at bridging the divide with veterans. It set up a Military Talent Attraction team, which recruits veterans and also educates store managers on the benefits of hiring them. The company has a military-focused career site, with a “skills translator” tool that lets veterans use their military occupation code to search jobs that might be a good fit for them. The company offers to connect them directly with other employees who are veterans.

Corbin wasn't recruited, as he discovered AT&T through a friend of his wife. But he has been pleased with his experience over the past year and a half since he was hired. He said he is well-paid, feels respected and, next month, begins training for a possible management job.

The biggest support employers can offer veterans is giving them a chance, he said.

“There is no doubt they (veterans) are going to succeed,” Corbin said. “They just have to get the opportunity.”

Chris Fleisher is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7854 or cfleisher@tribweb.com.

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