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Younger veterans want to work, but face roadblocks

Rachel Mummey / for msnbc.com

Tyson Akers was turned down for a security job with the Iowa National Guard in the midst of a 13-month job search. The veteran juggles going to school full time at Iowa State University while raising two young sons with his wife, Amanda.

Tyson Akers joined the Marines straight out of high school and spent more than eight years in the infantry, including four tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When he left the military in February 2011 because he wanted more time at home with his young children, he knew any civilian job would be different than what he’d done in the Marines.

“Your job was to go out and be on the front line and pray to God nothing happened to you,” he said. “It’s hard to translate that over to the civilian world.”

But Akers, 29, didn’t count on a job search that has lasted more than a year, leaving him demoralized and even questioning his decision to leave the Marines.

“You start thinking to yourself if it’s even possible to get a job once you’re out,” he said.

While older veterans generally have a relatively low jobless rate, the unemployment rate for veterans who have served in the post-9/11 era averaged more than 12 percent last year, compared with under 9 percent for the general population, according to government data out last week

The problem of veteran unemployment is widely recognized. President Barack Obama has referred to it frequently and just last month pledged to get more veterans back to work.

"They've already risked their lives defending America,” he said. “They should have the opportunity to rebuild America."

With the U.S. making plans to withdraw from Afghanistan and possibly shrink the military, thousands more young veterans like Akers are likely to be looking for work in the coming months and years.

Yet there are plenty of roadblocks preventing veterans from getting civilian jobs, including a lack of job-seeking skills and a mismatch between military experience and civilian requirements.

‘Hard to translate’
Younger veterans especially may lack the experience crafting a resume or handling a job interview. And after emerging from years in the jargon-filled military culture, they may have a hard time explaining how their military experience would benefit a civilian employer.

“They have a difficult time translating their military cultural language into civilian cultural language,” said Randy Plunkett, director of community and government outreach for military.com, a website aimed at the military community. “They undersell themselves. They don’t see and have a good handle on how to self-promote (and) how to articulate the skills they bring to the table.”

Akers, who lives in State Center, Iowa, thought that it wouldn’t be too hard to get a job as a security guard while he attended Iowa State University full time with support from the GI Bill.

Instead, over the past 13 months he’s endured rejection after rejection as employers told him that they had more qualified candidates. His wife, Amanda, said one prospective employer even told him his deployments didn’t count as security experience.

Recently, he got a break: A job interview with another former Marine at a security company run by other veterans.

He found out this week that he had gotten a security position, starting at 20 hours a week and paying $9.50 an hour. Although he had hoped to secure a supervisor position, at least it's a start.

Even companies that actively seek out veterans say it can be tough to get them hired.

Jim Barr, vice president of government relations with Ryder, said the trucking company has made a point of trying to hire veterans who drove or worked on trucks in the military. But to drive for Ryder, veterans need a civilian commercial driving license, and requirements vary by state.

Some require hundreds of hours of training, and military experience may not count. In other cases, Barr said, the veterans may be able to waive the training but have trouble getting a truck for the test.

“They sound like kind of minor barriers, but if you don’t have the truck to take the test with, you can’t take the test,” Barr said.

States including Washington, Utah, Colorado and Texas have been working to remove some of the licensing barriers.

Eddie Crosby, 36, served in the military from 1996 to 2000 and then re-enlisted from 2004 until 2010. He worked as a military truck mechanic and driver and trained for dealing with chemical spills. He has been surprised he has been unable to translate his experience into a civilian job.

He used the GI Bill to go to civilian truck driving school. But even after he got his commercial license, he said many companies were looking for someone with more experience on the road.

To save money, he moved to Hermiston, Ore., where he’s living with his fiancé in a 26-foot camp trailer on his family’s property. He is about to start a part-time, minimum-wage job at a potato chip factory.

“I loved my military service, I really did,” Crosby said.

But it’s hard to find himself, at age 36, scrounging for entry-level jobs.

“Everybody that I graduated high school with, they’re 10 years on a job, and here I am struggling to pump gas, you know?” he said.

Slipping through the cracks
Experts are seeing some of the biggest disconnects for veterans with medical experience and training.

One issue is that a military medic may end up doing advanced work that may not translate directly to a credential in civilian life, said Steve Gonzalez, assistant director of the American Legion Economic Division. It can then be tough to figure out how to apply that experience toward a civilian medical license or credential.

There also are legitimate differences between medical work you do in the military and in civilian life, said veteran Ben Chlapek, deputy chief at the Central Jackson County Fire Protection District in Missouri. A medic who served in combat may not have experience with common civilian issues such as drug abuse, domestic abuse and pediatric patients.

Follow the story of Staff Sgt. Charles Weaver over the past ten years, from 2002 when he had been a soldier of Operation Iraqi Freedom to today - having returned back home to the United States, but now fighting to be a productive and employed individual.  NBC News' Tom Brokaw reports 'Hiring our Heroes' on Sunday, March 25th, at 7pm/6c. 

“Soldiers rarely deliver babies,” Chlapek said.

He said some potentially good candidates slip through the cracks when they realize they can’t get a job right away, or one that pays as well as their military job did.

“A lot of times they’ll call us or come in, and then they’ll disappear,” he said.

Even when the skills transfer directly, it can be tough to juggle military and civilian careers.

Todd Fredricks, 46, of Athens, Ohio, always dreamed of having his own rural medical practice, but he also wanted to serve in the military. As an Army flight surgeon in the reserves, he deployed to the Balkans once and to Iraq three times, most recently in 2011.

The transitions made it impossible to keep up a medical practice, and he now works full-time in a hospital in West Virginia.

“I practice the medicine that I do now because it’s the easiest way I can enter and leave service,” he said.

Peter Leon, an administrative nursing supervisor with Panorama City Medical Center in California, also considers himself lucky: As an RN, he was able to easily transition back and forth between his job stateside and his military deployments as a reservist.

Leon, 44, last deployed to Iraq in 2008, and now that he has a young daughter he no longer volunteers to go overseas. But he misses his military duty.

“I wish I could go back and deploy again,” he said. “I feel more useful out there than I do here.”

There are other success stories. J.P. Morgan, 36, served in the military as an aircraft electrician from 1994 to 1998.

In 2004, he rejoined the military as a reservist, partly because he would get additional training he could never afford as a civilian. That has allowed him to get the certification he needed to become an aircraft maintenance technician for Southwest Airlines.

Morgan, who lives in Dallas, left the reserves in 2010.

“The military – it was wonderful to me in that respect,” he said.

(This story has been updated from an earlier version to reflect new information that Tyson Akers has landed a job.)

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For more on Hiring our Heroes, an initiative from NBC News and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that aims to get veterans back into the workforce, click here. Learn more about job fairs for veterans here