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Troops returning from war face a tough job market

Staff Sgt. Leroy Camacho spent 12 years in Iraq and Afghanistan as an explosives expert. It's a skill, he says, that doesn't have many applications in the civilian workforce. Camacho recently attended an Army job fair, looking for work.

KAI RYSSDAL: There's a page in the jobs report that came out this morning titled 'Employment status by veterans status and period of service.' If you run your finger down to the line for Iraq and Afghanistan vets, you see their unemployment rate is 11.7 percent. A good two-and-a-half points higher than the national average and probably headed higher. More than a million people are expected to leave the military over the next five years as Iraq and Afghanistan wind down. So a lot of veterans are trying to figure out whether the experiences they had at war translate into marketable job skills at home.

From WPLN in Nashville, Blake Farmer reports.


BLAKE FARMER: Military installations from California to North Carolina have held job fairs in the last month, and thousands of veterans turn out. Recently the line to get into a job fair at Fort Campbell in Kentucky stretched well into the parking lot.

HAROLD RIGGINS: We'll get you guys in the building in just a little bit, OK?

Harold Riggins runs the job placement office at Fort Campbell. He says keeping veterans out of the unemployment line is a growing challenge.

For a long time, they didn't have to look far for work. The Department of Defense is the largest employer of military vets. But just as troop numbers are shrinking, Riggins says so is the Defense Department's civilian workforce.

RIGGINS: I would tell you that there are lieutenant colonels that are having a hard time finding a job.

In the Fort Campbell community center, hundreds are milling around booths set up by dozens of employers.

Staff Sgt. Leroy Camacho has come to realize not all military jobs pave the way to the private sector. He's spent 12 years and four deployments as a combat engineer, using explosives to clear the way for troops or make life harder on the enemy. His expertise has limited civilian applications.

LEROY CAMACHO: They have quarry blasting, you know, dynamiting, stuff like that. But you have to go out in remote areas. That's not something I really want to get into.

Camacho figures he'll need new skills, and he's leaning toward cars.

A representative from a technical school revs a hot rod outside. Camacho wants to attend one of its programs so he can work at a BMW dealership.

CAMACHO: It's not like the cars are going to explode on me or do something crazy like what I've been dealing with.

Combat veterans like Camacho have been dealing with a lot of death and destruction. And Harold Riggins says that makes some employers wary of hiring them.

RIGGINS: Are they going to be a hazard? If we have an issue in our organization, are they going to go postal?

Those questions about post-traumatic stress are overblown, he says, adding that combat experience can be a plus.

RIGGINS: You tell a veteran to go out and dig a ditch with a spoon, they're going to figure out how to do it.

LYNSEY JOHSTON: Have you done MIG welding before?

Lynsey Johnston is handing out brochures left and right. Her company builds tractor trailer suspensions at a nearby plant. She's hired six vets as of June.

JOHNSTON: There's more discipline. There's more of a need and a want to be on time and show up to work, which you don't get a lot of times.

And many already have marketable skills like welding or logistics planning. So Johnston's question to soldiers like Specialist Jessica Maxwell is: When can you start?

JESSICA MAXWELL: April.

JOHNSTON: OK, so pretty soon.

For the last four years, Maxwell has worked as a mechanic on Army trucks. The experience fits neatly on a resume.

MAXWELL: It basically breaks it down into civilian terms, like "replaces engine components such as fuel pumps, generators, starters, voltage regulators."

Maxwell says now she'll just have to learn her way around a highway truck instead of a humvee.

At Fort Campbell, Ky., I'm Blake Farmer for Marketplace.

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