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Efforts to Boost Veterans' Job Prospects Praised

As the nation honors its veterans Monday, many are having difficulty finding a job. But in Texas, businesses, advocacy groups and higher ed institutions are working to address that issue, and their efforts have earned national attention.

By Tanvi Misra, Medill News Service
Service members and their families from Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas, participate in the Veterans Day parade in San Angelo, Texas, Nov. 6, 2010.

WASHINGTON — When Texas National Guardsman Brandon Schraub returned home four years ago after serving in Iraq, he found himself knee-deep in a tough job search.

In 2009, “no one just blatantly said that they wouldn’t hire me, but you know how you go into a job interview and … you know, you can just read from their body language that yeah, you probably aren’t going to get hired,” said Schraub, 24, who is originally from the Central Texas city of Hico.

Schraub was called up to serve in Afghanistan in 2012. When he returned this year, he said he got an interview at the Erath County sheriff’s office and accepted a job as the night jailer.

“I’ve had a lot better luck this time around,”he said. Although Schraub didn’t get direct help from government programs, he said they were “going in the right direction.”

Schraub is like many returning soldiers who have difficulty finding a job back home. And in Texas, special attention is being placed on boosting employment prospects in the state — an effort that has gotten nationwide attention.

During a recent field hearing in Waco, The U.S. House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity surveyed new approaches being used in Texas.  

U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Waco, who chairs the subcommittee, noted several “laudable efforts” on the part of businesses, advocacy groups and educational institutions that have helped bring the veteran unemployment rate in Texas to 5.5 percent for the month of September, well below the national average of 6.8 percent, he said.

“We can bottle up a bit of that Texas magic and share it with the rest of the country,” Flores said.

Several companies at the hearing talked about a “military-friendly work environment” and emphasized a commitment to veteran hiring.

David Amsden, a vice president at Cognizant Technology Solutions — an energy, health care and financial services company that has more than 2,000 employees in Texas — said that in 2013, his company hired more than 100 veterans.  Amsden said his company developed a transition program called “Public to Private,” which helps veterans with job-searching skills.

“There is more to be done,” Amsden said, adding that the company is planning to increase veteran hiring in 2013 and 2014 by partnering with colleges and other companies.

In 2011, a number of U.S. companies launched the 100,000 Jobs Mission with a goal of collectively hiring 100,000 transitioning service members and military veterans by 2020, said John Vizner, facility manager at Caterpillar Global Work Tools in Waco. His company is among the 123 companiestaking part.

Franchise companies offer discounts, tax credits and incentives to facilitate small-business ownership in Texas and across the nation, said Mary Thompson, a vice president at the Dwyer Group, which has hired more than 624 veterans to date, she said. The company’s VetFran initiative, started in Waco, boasts more than 600 franchise participants and hired 151,557 veterans and military spouses in the past two years, she said.

“Let’s not just give them an ovation, let’s give them a vocation. Let’s give them the power to prosper,” said Thompson. She added that veterans hire other veterans, so this was a self-sustaining model for increasing veteran employment.

Like Schraub, who eventually wants to work as a state trooper, several veterans want to take classes to build on the skills they have acquired on duty. In addition to the post-9/11 GI Bill benefits that help with college costs, public universities like Texas A&M University and private universities like Baylor are trying to go from being “military friendly” to being “military embracing.” At the hearing, representatives of the colleges emphasized subsidizing education, providing career and support services, and recruiting opportunities for veteran students.

The Texas Workforce Commission and Texas Veterans Commission provide employment training, one-on-one assistance to veterans as well as match employment recruiters to veterans of a particular skill-set. The Workforce Commission, for example, helped place 2,400 veterans or their spouses with 1,400 employers nationwide in the last few years.

But several challenges remain. One of the biggest is the inability of veterans to appropriately market themselves, Amsden says. 

“When these folks are first getting out of service, it is like a hard and fast stop,” Amsden said at the hearing. He said that despite having the skills and despite the services of the advocacy groups, veterans don’t always have the time to develop their interview skills and résumés.

“The mind-set when they come back is to come home, to come back to Texas, but the reality is that it’s a national economy … they need to market themselves not just to Texas but to our country," he added. 

That approach might work for some veterans, but for Schraub, leaving school and moving elsewhere isn’t feasible.  

Charles Little, another Texas guardsman, came back from Baghdad in 2009 to find that his job as a risk analyst was no longer waiting for him because of downsizing. Still unemployed, he said the problem goes beyond marketing. 

“Your résumé alone is not going to fix the problem, it’s not going to fix the friction,” he said. A “head-hunter model” with a more “proactive than reactive” approach would help people like him, Little said.

Although it is “really in vogue to say that you’re hiring veterans,” Little said, he and other National Guard veterans said they still saw hesitation in the hiring process. The possibility of being called up to active duty at any time and the mandatory three-week annual guard training hurt National Guardsmen in particular.  

“I think they stay away from us just because it’s inconvenient to them,” said Schraub. They don’t want to go through the hassle of finding somebody to cover us when we’re gone.”

The unemployment rate for National Guardsmen who had been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq deployed was 7.2 percent, according to August 2012 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Schraub, Little and others also said that employers have heard a lot about post-traumatic stress disorder and worry that potential hires could be affected.

“(There is) an ignorance of veterans and veterans’ issues,” said Walt Spang, 67, a Vietnam veteran and founder of Texas County Veterans, a nonprofit organization, started in Erath County, that provides peer-to-peer assistance to veterans.

What a lot of employers didn’t know about was post-traumatic growth, Joseph Kopser, a veteran and CEO of RideScout in Austin, said at the hearing. In combat, veterans learn to get their buddies out of danger and come out with a sense of confidence, purpose and resilience, Kopser said.

His business focuses on a transportation app he created when he “got tired of sitting in traffic and burning fuel,” he said. His impassioned testimony outlined the teamwork, problem solving and entrepreneurial ability of veterans like himself.

“Making it happen…it’s what we do,” Kopser said. 

The Medill News Service is a content partner of The Texas Tribune and is providing reports from Washington, D.C.

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