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Young veterans struggle to join workforce

Union Leader Correspondent

March 16. 2013 2:26AM
William Baas, executive director for talent acquisition at Comcast, with a website design to help veterans gain employment at Comcast, from his office in Manchester. (THOMAS ROY/UNION LEADER)

Veterans who are looking for jobs and opportunities to reboot careers have been hearing reports with mixed information and messages.

Companies in New Hampshire and throughout the country are reaching out to unemployed vets, and there are veteran employment programs and specialists from all types of agencies working at both state and local levels.

Still the latest round of employment reports and statistics has triggered reactions from some who call joblessness among veterans a national disgrace, and others who say veteran unemployment is another example of the media exaggerating and distorting an issue.

"There's really no problem," said James Goss, executive director of Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, a Department of Defense program that works with Reserve military members and their employers and bosses on a variety of issues.

"New Hampshire has a low unemployment rate, and there are lots of jobs available," said Goss, who added the press has created a false impression of a nonexistent problem.

And according to some fresh numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national unemployment rate is 7.7 percent while unemployment for veterans is about 6.9 percent.

But you don't have to dive too deep into the number to find the problem.

According to the Institute for Veterans and Military Families, at the end of 2012, the rate of unemployment for vets under the age of 24 was 28 percent. More than 9 percent of veterans between the ages of 25 and 29 are out of work, and 7.9 percent of vets ages 30 to 34 are unemployed.

According to U.S. Rep. Ann Kuster, now a member of the House Armed Services Committee, those broad statistics translate to about 2,000 New Hampshire veterans who need a job.

Even people who have different perspectives on unemployment trends agree that vets face a unique set of challenges when they complete their service and head back into the civilian job market.

Sherri Merrill, manager of Bonney Staffing agency's Portsmouth office, said she sees a steady stream of vets filling out applications for temporary work.

"One thing we have is veterans who are returning from deployment are not looking to get into something right away," Merrill said. "They want to take some time to readjust to civilian life, and rightly so."

But when they are ready to begin work, some vets aren't sure where to start, particularly younger vets who signed up to serve right out of high school and who have never looked for a civilian job.

"We encourage vets to understand what employers are looking for, and to understand their own experience and how it translates into the civilian workforce," Merrill said.

And that's not always easy. Merrill worked with a recently retired Army staff sergeant who oversaw about $13 million of equipment while in the military.

"He didn't think he has any transferable skills," said Merrill, who immediately saw he had managerial experience and inventory skills.

"Those are the things we help veterans articulate," she said.

Mike Powers of the NH Workforce Opportunity Council agrees there is an issue with defining transferable skills, but adds there are other ways back into the civilian workforce. Powers said the Return to Work program, which offers employers grants to cover several months of job training to prepare veterans for new jobs, is available and woefully underused.

"We know veterans are dependable and they're tremendous workers," said Powers, who has also worked with employers who look specifically for vets when they are hiring.

Will Baas, executive director of talent acquisition for Comcast, and a commander in the U.S. Navy Reserves, sees the veteran employment challenges from both the military and business sides. Comcast and NBCUniversal launched a "Hiring Our Heroes" effort and set a goal of hiring 1,000 veterans by 2015, but met that goal with years to spare. So the company is now committed to hiring an additional 1,000 veterans over the next three years.

"The Hiring Our Heroes program has been a super success, but Comcast really takes a holistic approach," Baas said. "In addition to jobs, the company is also a leader in offering mentoring and veteran support services."

Comcast offers a free a e-book, "Heroes Get Hired" that is filled with information and tips on how to present military experience as an asset in the civilian workforce on resumes and in job interviews.

Baas has represented Comcast at job fairs in Rollinsford and White River Junction, and he is very optimistic about a new online military recruiting site that will allow the company to tap more veteran talent.

"Veterans have leadership skills, they know how to work in teams and they have the ability to adapt to changing circumstances," he said.

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