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New veterans might have tough time finding work

Honor Guards from each branch of the military at Arlington National Cemetery.

Col. Mark Gardner says part of networking involved reading up on what's happening in the business world. He starts his day with the Wall Street Journal and USA Today.

Over the next 12 months, 34,000 U.S. soldiers are scheduled to return home from Afghanistan, and many of them presumably will be looking to get back into the civilian work force.

But they’re likely to have some competition from Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who’ve already returned.

A new report out from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago says veterans of those wars have a higher unemployment rate than those who never served and even higher than older veterans.

Take, for example, 35-year-old Stephen D’Alessio, who spent almost eight years in the Marines as a combat photographer. When he got out, he headed off to college and earned a degree in history from Columbia.

But since then, he hasn’t been able to find full-time, permanent work. His most recent gig -- a temporary job with FEMA -- is about to wrap up.

“After getting a degree at an Ivy League institution, and having served my country honorably, I just thought there’d be something better out there,” D’Alessio says. “And I just kept trying at it. But two years later, when I’m delivering flowers in a hooptie van, it gets disappointing.”

It’s not that his phone isn’t ringing -- it is. But it’s what happens during the interview process that frustrates D’Alessio.

“Being a Marine Corps veteran, I think has a certain stigma," he says. "Whether people realize it or not, what they’re thinking is: ‘Well, gee, I don’t know if I want to hire this guy, because I’m kind of scared of him.’”

The Chicago Fed report finds long deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan have hurt the job prospects for new veterans, whether because of worries over post traumatic stress, or concerns their skills won’t translate to the civilian workforce.

And those perceptions might also be holding back officers who’ve spent most of their lives in the military, like Col. Mark Gardner.  In June he'll become just “Mark” after having served his maximum 30 years in the Army.

“The realization that I had to move on, to do something in the commercial world, was a little daunting, actually,” he says.

Gardner started the job hunt two years ago with a resume that read like a dictionary of Army terms. His background in the Army’s logistics put him on par with an upper-level manager, but those aren’t the jobs generally posted on the web.

So when someone suggested he network to drum up leads, “I said, ‘Well, how in the heck do I network? I don’t know anything about networking.’”

Gardner tried to bone up wherever he could. When a big company had a hiring fair geared toward veterans, he’d show up. But he often found hiring managers equated him with the image of veterans they had burned in their minds -- the image of a kid on the front lines with a gun.

Eventually, he found a good job in logistics management.

But this preconceived idea of what a veteran ‘is,’ or how one ‘acts,’ that’s hard to overcome, says Kurt Ronn. He’s president of HRWorks, a nationwide recruitment firm whose business is heavily involved in military transition hiring.

“This stereotype of this unthinking, sort of robotic person -- I’m not exactly sure where it comes from. But it’s still out there, because we still hear it,” says Ronn. “This is one of the most intelligent workforces that you can have.”

Ronn says HR managers who are on the fence should just hire a veteran -- even just one. See what it’s like.

And Marine veteran Stephen D’Alessio would be glad if someone took that chance on him.

“I’m married now. I’d like to have some stability for my wife. I’d like to start a family. I’m kind of waiting for that permanent gig where somebody hires me and I can do that,” he says. “That’s really my one wish.”

About the author

Jim Burress is a reporter for WABE in Atlanta.

Col. Mark Gardner says part of networking involved reading up on what's happening in the business world. He starts his day with the Wall Street Journal and USA Today.

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