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Veterans returning to civilian life find a more welcoming labor market

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Rudy Del Rio (left) speaks with Drew Anderson of Southwest Residential Interiors inside a bathroom of a home under construction in the Verrado development. Rudy Del Rio (left) speaks with Drew Anderson of Southwest Residential Interiors inside a bathroom of a home under construction in the Verrado development.
Rudy Del Rio (right) speaks with masons Ignacio Pineda (left) and Rafael Aguilar, in the backyard of a home under construction in the Verrado development. Rudy Del Rio (right) speaks with masons Ignacio Pineda (left) and Rafael Aguilar, in the backyard of a home under construction in the Verrado development.
Rudy Del Rio (left), a builder with David Weekley Homes, speaks with MacKenzie Manygoats (middle) and Joshua Willis of Arizona Pipeline Company during installation of gas and electric lines. Rudy Del Rio (left), a builder with David Weekley Homes, speaks with MacKenzie Manygoats (middle) and Joshua Willis of Arizona Pipeline Company during installation of gas and electric lines.
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Storm Johnson was concerned about finding work upon leaving the military after five years as a Marine. He said he had some trouble preparing job applications, largely because it was difficult to translate what he did in the military to civilian job skills.

But Johnson, who now lives in Chandler, Arizona, soon realized the process wasn't that difficult. With the assistance of a recruiting firm that helped him polish up his resume, he received a couple job offers and eventually accepted a position with a contractor that provides technical services for Intel.

"I had a job lined up before I left military service," said Johnson, who left earlier this year.

One of the many benefits of a strong job market is that veterans returning to civilian life are finding opportunities more plentiful than in years past. Not everyone is faring equally well - some former military enlisted personnel who lack college degrees are struggling. So are some with military-connected physical or emotional disabilities.

But overall, things have gotten better

Several years ago, as the military was scaling back involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, the jobless rate for "trigger pullers" was off the charts high, said Mike Starich, CEO of Orion Talent, referring to Army soldiers and Marines trained in firing weapons but lacking in leadership or technical expertise.

"Learning how to shoot an M-16 isn't a highly transferable skill," said Starich, whose company helped to find jobs for Johnson and some other veterans interviewed by The Arizona Republic.

Now, mirroring dramatic improvements in the overall jobless rate, former military people stand as good a chance as anyone in finding a job. Even better, perhaps. The jobless rate for former military personnel this Veterans' Day stands at 2.9 percent, below the national unemployment rate of 3.7 percent.

Making progress

Starich identified a couple programs that seemed to have helped, aside from economic improvement generally. One was the "Joining Forces" campaign initiated under former First Lady Michelle Obama that encouraged employers to hire veterans.

"That got a lot of buy-in from companies," he said.

Another initiative was to include certain groups of veterans within the Department of Labor's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, in 2014. This barred federal contractors from discriminating against protected classes of veterans and required these employers to recruit and hire recently discharged military personnel.

At the time, Gulf War veterans faced higher unemployment and earned less money than non-veterans of similar ages and education levels, with men faring worse than women.

"It's definitely working," Starich said of the latter program.

In a Prudential survey conducted around that time, two-thirds of veterans said they had trouble transitioning to civilian life; job hunting was listed as the top barrier. Prudential hasn't updated the survey, but with more veterans working, the obstacles have been easing.

Translating skills

It helps that scores of employers have recruited veterans in recent years. Another plus is that many companies value the skills that veterans possess.

"What employers appreciate the most is that we've been through the maturation process," said Justin Clark, a former Marine. He now works as a field service engineer for Southwest Medical Resources, where he maintains and repairs medical-imaging equipment, following work in aviation electronics in the military.

"We show up on time, we work hard and we're resourceful," said Clark, who lives in Surprise, Arizona.

Companies value veterans for their qualifications, composure, productivity and skills, according to a survey this year of more than 100 human-resources and recruiting professionals by Orion Talent.

"Veterans also can pass background and drug tests," said Starich. "That's a big deal with the labor market so tight."

However, the Orion study, and the earlier one from Prudential, did indicate prospective employers don't always understand the skills picked up in the military by applicants.

Starich cited the example of a Navy fire-control technician.

"That sounds like it has something to do with installing sprinklers in a building," he said. "But it actually controls a gun or missile system connected to radar."

Branching out

Veterans themselves aren't always sure which jobs they might qualify for.

"Nothing I learned in the military directly taught me how to build houses," said Rudy Del Rio, a former convoy-arranging logistics officer for the Marines and a foreign-forces adviser who helped train Afghan military personnel.

"But it gave me a foundation of skills for project management and insight for working with other people to get where we need to be."

Today, after earning a graduate management degree from Arizona State University, Del Rio, who lives in Surprise, works as a residential construction supervisor for David Weekley Homes.

"The military helped me be accountable, decisive and able to lead people through unclear situations," he said.

Del Rio's advice to job-searching veterans is not to limit themselves to their occupational specialty in the military.

"Be willing to adapt your skill sets, and don't be afraid to learn new skills," he said.

Other adjustments

Finding jobs, while easier than in the past, isn't the only obstacle facing veterans. There's also a need to learn how civilians interact in the workplace. Veterans describe civilian work atmospheres as more relaxed and casual than in the military, with lines of command often not as clear-cut.

Sean Passmore, a military-hiring adviser at financial-services firm USAA in San Antonio, said cultural challenges for veterans include learning how to dress in the workplace, tolerating small talk and meetings that don't always start on time, and learning to recognize which people are in charge in a uniform-free environment.

Managing a career path also can be more difficult, without someone directing where you will be working, what you'll be doing and for how long.

"It's not always a straight-up ladder, as with the military," he said.

Workplace benefits, such as health insurance and 401(k) retirement plans, also can be tricky.

"The military handles a lot of your life activities, such as housing and health care, so you don't have to think of that," said Johnson.

For Clark, one of the biggest changes was a reduced number of vacation days.

"I went from 30 days a year to 10," he said. "You also have to start thinking of costs you didn't incur in the military."

JJ Montanaro, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who now helps former veterans deal with financial issues, doesn't see veteran personal-finance issues as substantially different from Americans overall. For example, a lot of former veterans are living paycheck-to-paycheck, as many Americans do, and they often haven't saved sufficiently for retirement, like a lot of other people.

Montanaro, who also works for USAA in San Antonio, considers budgeting a key exercise for those leaving or planning to leave the military.

"They will need to add some new budget lines, such as for health-care costs and increased taxes," he said.

Importance of preparation

One of Montanaro's key tips for service members is to build up savings before leaving the military.

"If you have a stash of cash, then you don't need to take that first job but can wait to find something that better suits your desires and needs," he said. "It's all about having a plan and following it, rather than letting things happen to you."

Planning ahead makes sense for job seekers, too. "Where a lot of vets fail is relying too heavily on the six to eight weeks of paid vacation they might get" upon leaving the military, using this time to take it easy rather than searching for a job, said Johnson.

Clark suggests that military personnel begin the search well before leaving.

"Start looking even if you think you might re-enlist," he suggests.

But overall, as noted, things have improved dramatically for people leaving the military, with the job market this Veteran's Day among the strongest it has been in decades.

"The hidden reality is that what has happened is really good news," said Starich.

Reach Wiles at russ.wiles@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-8616.

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