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Help for vets looking to find new careers

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Veterans register for the 'Hiring Our Heroes' job fair held on Nov. 4, 2011, at the South Towne Expo Center in Sandy, Utah. The fair, which included over 100 employers, was for veterans and current active duty military personnel looking for jobs and was sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

By Eve Tahmincioglu

Aaron Perrine is proud of the years he spent serving his country in the military, and wants other vets looking to find new careers in civilian life to be as well.

“It’s not a professional handicap to have been a veteran,” stressed Perrine, who spent five years on active duty until last year, including deployment to Afghanistan where he was a Ranger platoon leader.

“You have to say, ‘I’m proud of my military service’ and find the best way to translate those experiences and figure out where you can be successful,” he said.

Perrine -- now a second year MBA student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and lead officer at the business school’s Veterans Club -- realizes many vets face employment hurdles when they come out of the service. He said it’s all about framing military service in a compelling way for employers, however, including everything from leadership experience to team collaboration and a strong work ethic.

“Being a vet is gold,” he said.

Indeed, a survey out this week from CareerBuilder found that “one-in-five (or 20 percent) of employers reported they are actively recruiting U.S. veterans to work for their organizations over the next 12 months; 14 percent are actively recruiting members of the National Guard.”

And the areas where they plan to hire include:

  • Information Technology -- 36 percent
  • Customer Service -- 28 percent
  • Engineering -- 25 percent
  • Sales -- 22 percent

“The survey shows that employers recognize the unique value military experience can bring, but that they don’t always understand how military skills fit into corporate America,” said Brent Rasmussen, president of CareerBuilder North America.

“Veterans will need to clearly make that connection in their resume, cover letter and job interviews as they enter this new chapter of their careers,” he added.

Despite the good news, many vets, especially of the most recent conflicts, have faced a difficult time finding employment.

The unemployment rate among vets who served in the Middle East since 9/11 was 12.1 percent in October, compared to 9 percent for the overall workforce. And the rate tends to be higher for younger vets recently returning from combat. In 2010, the jobless rate was 20.9 percent for those vets between the ages of 18 and 24, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The job market has been dismal for everyone and that’s made it harder for vets to land jobs, said Chad Storlie, author of “Combat Leader to Corporate Leader: 20 Lessons to Advance Your Civilian Career."

“I don’t think it’s overt discrimination, but HR departments and hiring managers are being very picky today,” he explained. “They want the best person that makes them feel comfortable; that’s why vets have to show everything in their background and how that will help them be successful.”

The federal government understands the challenges vets face, and to that end the Obama administration launched a Veterans Job Bank last week to help vets find employment.

There are other resources and financial help available to vets who want further education, or training, including the Post-9/11 GI-Bill, which covers all or most tuition costs depending on the schools vets attend.

In addition, it’s helpful to choose the right place to find employment -- in cities or towns that are more vet friendly. A new study commissioned by financial firm USAA and Military.com identified the “Best Places for Military Retirement: Second Careers,” and named Oklahoma City, Okla., as the best town for vets.

The rest of the top US metros included:

  • Norfolk, Va.
  • Richmond, Va.
  • Austin, Texas
  • San Antonio, Texas
  • Madison, Wis.
  • Philadelphia, Pa.
  • Raleigh, N.C.
  • Omaha, Neb.
  • Manchester, N.H.

The researcher looked at a broad range of criteria when deciding on the most vet-friendly cities:

  • Employment opportunities and sectors that align with military skills sets, such as defense, engineering, medical services and aviation, as well as the overall jobs climate based on unemployment rate and number of small businesses.
  • Proximity to a military base and a Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital or clinic, base amenities and state taxation on military pensions.
  • General quality of life and pocketbook issues, such as affordability, housing costs, crime rate, sales taxes and climate.

“This list doesn’t mean didactically where military officers can now get a job,” stressed Ward Carroll, editor of Military.com and also a military retiree.

“Your employability is very much about what you did in the military,” Carroll said. “This list is about finding the right focus and leveraging that in terms of salary, career rewards and employability.”

Before you chose a new town, he advised:

“Start with a self-awareness program, formal or informal. Figure out who you are, what you want to do, and what’s best for you.”

The first job you find may not be the right one, he stressed, but that’s the beauty of civilian life -- “you don’t have to stay in a job longer than you want to,” Carroll added.

The other key is networking, according to vet advocates, and ex-military folks tend to have the best networks, filled with people they’ve served with while on duty.

“You’ve got to use your network,” advised Wharton’s Perrine. “If there’s a guy in your unit who got out and is running a distribution center at Amazon, for example, reach out to them.”

And, he added, vets should start doing their research before they leave the military if possible.

When Perrine was still in Afghanistan, he recalled, he emailed a guy at Wharton who walked him through the whole admissions process. He was also able to get help from the 9/11 GI-Bill and ended up having all his tuition costs covered.

Perrine has already received a full-time offer from consulting giant McKinsey & Company and will start his new job when he graduates.

“There really is no limit to what we can do,” he said, calling vets “an untapped resource.”