After returning home, soldiers face tough job market

Welcoming party
People greet returning members of the National Guard in West St. Paul. A recent survey of more than 600 Minnesota National Guard soldiers found that just under 15 percent were either unemployed or looking for a job.
MPR Photo/Jess Mador

Even with signs the recession may be ending, unemployment is expected to continue.

For soldiers returning from deployment, finding a job can be even tougher. On top of the already tight job market, military officials say fewer recent veterans have jobs waiting for them, and many who do find their hours cut.

Over the weekend, about 150 recently returned soldiers attended workshops in Minneapolis designed to help them get a job and get back on their feet.

Specialist David Reker is fresh from his tour as a flight medic with a National Guard unit that served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He heard about the recession while he was away and thought people were exaggerating about how bad things were.

The job he had before he deployed dried up and now he is looking for work as an EMT or paramedic, but the jobs, he says, are scarce.

"When we left there were tons of jobs everywhere," he says. "Quite a few in the EMT and paramedic side of the world and now I looked at the papers when I came back and started looking for a job and there is nothing."

He got little help when he called a veterans employment service.

"When I called up the county veterans assistance for employment and said I'm looking for a job he said, 'Well yeah, you and 6,000 other people,'" Reker recalls. "It really hit home then."

Over the weekend, Reker found himself at the downtown Minneapolis Hilton where another veteran, Ron Kellen, was promoting what he calls the job seeker's '30-second sales pitch.'

Waiting at interview workshop
Soldiers wait for a job interview workshop to begin at the Minneapolis Hilton. Some Guard soldiers have even chosen to stay in Iraq rather than come home to face the recession job market.
MPR Photo/Jess Mador

"That first question in an interview may be 'tell me about yourself.' You are advertising, you are selling yourself," Kellen told them. "That's what this is all about." About a dozen uniformed soldiers from the National Guard and the Marines listened attentively. They recently returned from deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan and North Africa and most of them are looking for a job.

Kellen has been leading workshops like these for more than thirty years. He says the job picture right now for returning soldiers is bleak.

"One of the questions I ask often is, 'How many of you are going back to a previous job?,' and it used to be that most of the hands went up," Kellen says. "So, a lot of people don't have a job to come back to."

Guard officials say the Minnesota National Guard tends to have higher unemployment rates than the state as a whole, even in boom times. And this year, as the fallout from the financial crisis continues, Lt. Col. Barbara O'Reilly, Chief of the National Guard's Beyond the Yellow Ribbon program, says it's even worse.

A recent survey of more than 600 National Guard soldiers found that just under 15 percent were either unemployed or looking for a job. Some Guard soldiers have even chosen to stay in Iraq rather than come home to face recession.

"Almost two dozen that elected to stay in Iraq as opposed to coming home."

"Almost two dozen that elected to stay in Iraq as opposed to coming home," she said. "I think that is a sad statement."

Federal law prohibits discrimination against members of the military, but officials say it's still common. Small businesses often find it difficult to handle when employees get deployed, and even if they do hold a veteran's job, in the recession some employers have drastically cut hours or pay. That leaves many soldiers looking for work on top of dealing with the stress of adjusting back to civilian life.

"While they are on active duty they have the paycheck, they have stability, they have insurance," O'Reilly said. "And then to come home, you just don't know what is going to happen."

At another recent job fair in Minneapolis, Guard member Rich Brummond of Maple Grove says the key to finding a job after deployment is tailoring your skills to the new realities of the job market. He's focusing on health care.

"Part of it is up to individuals to try to specialize in an area or make yourself marketable," Brummond says. "At the time I was going to school, I looked at an area that, regardless of the economy or external trends, I would most likely be employed or have a skill that would be in demand." Brummond used to work as a nurse and says he's considering going back to school for teaching. He hopes that with the nursing shortage, his skills will keep him employed. Others say it's not so easy, even in the field of health care, which used to be considered recession-proof.

Back at the Minneapolis Hilton this weekend, Capt. Nathan Foster, a pilot with the National Guard, says some soldiers might have to take a job they don't necessarily like while they look for something better.

"People have to be willing to suck up some pride a little bit and take what you can get," Foster says. "Sometimes you have to go back to that minimum wage job and take that job, get started and pay the bills and go from there."

Until the economy turns around, that may be good advice.