WASHINGTON — U.S. combat troops patrol dusty pathways in Afghanistan, look for hidden roadside bombs, load and fire mortar shells at insurgents' positions. So when they come home, how will that help them land a civilian job?
They can "be a mercenary," muses Capt. John Rodriguez, who'll leave the Army soon after six years.
That's the kind of thinking the government wants to change, both among American employers and members of the armed forces. In fact, the skills troops use in combat can be useful for many types of civilian jobs, but employers often don't understand them and people leaving the military need help with presenting those skills or developing new ones.
Rodriguez was attending a recent resume writing class, part of the Transition Assistance Program, which is run by the departments of Defense, Labor and Veteran Affairs to help soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines successfully make the transition back to the civilian world.
Some 250,000 service members leave the military each year and all must attend counseling on finances and other issues whether they served six years or 26 years, whether they saw the battlefield or not. Other parts of the 20-year-old transition program have been voluntary, such as the resume writing class and one on how to dress for the civilian workplace.
At the class Rodriguez attended, teacher Aleshia Thomas-Miller offered some tips for writing resumes that might help civilian employers understand what veterans did in Afghanistan and Iraq and how their experience translates to a nonmilitary job:
- Don't use military jargon or an alphabet soup of military acronyms. Even a job isn't called a job in the military, it's called an MOS, or military occupational specialty. That might fly in military circles, but in the civilian world, it's incomprehensible. "It doesn't matter how qualified you are if the employer does not understand," she told the class of a dozen soldiers.
- If you were a platoon leader, as Rodriguez was in Afghanistan, don't use that term either, Thomas-Miller said. Say you managed 50 people, were responsible for expensive equipment, made decisions in stressful situations.
There's online help as well. At careeronestop.org and Mil2FedJobs.com, troops can type in their military occupation and get a list of related jobs, the states in which they're located and sometimes with a link to apply for the job online, depending on the program.
For instance, an 11C (an Indirect Fire Infantryman who can supervise or serve on a mortar unit), might find one of 180 jobs in Illinois, driving trucks, running company training programs or working in security.
The vast majority of veterans are employed, but the jobless rate for America's new generation of veterans was 9.5 percent last month. That's down from 12.7 percent the previous month and 13.3 percent in June 2011, the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics said. But it's still been consistently higher than the country at large, with an unemployment rate of 8.2 percent in June, and for vets from all previous wars.
There are hundreds of jobs in the military — for medics, computer specialists, mechanics, lawyers, finance officers, pilots, electrical engineers, nuclear engineers, food service managers, heavy equipment operators and more. Although officials provided no data on who has the hardest time finding jobs after military service, many say it's infantrymen and those who held other jobs directly involved in combat that have no direct civilian equivalent.
President Barack Obama on Monday announced a redesign of the transition program. Starting later this year, assistance will begin earlier in a military career, rather than at the end. There will be more one-on-one help, a separate focus for those wanting to go back to school or start their own businesses. Classes will be five to seven days, rather than the current three and more things will be mandatory for most people.
The redesigned program will have a fancier new name — Transition GPS. The administration is calling it the first major overhaul of a system started in the 1990s post-Cold War drawdown, though it's been updated in recent years to be more youth friendly with Web-based information and workshops.
Acknowledging that troops already have some terrific experience, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the revised program will help them "apply their experience to additional training, formal education and develop successful civilian careers."
A recent study by the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank, said businesses want to hire new vets because they believe they have leadership qualities, teamwork skills, character, discipline, expertise, effectiveness and loyalty.
Envisioning how vets might fit into their company is a different matter, said the study, which included interviews with 87 unidentified businessmen representing 69 companies.
"The most prominent obstacle to hiring veterans," it said, is that "both civilians and members of the military have a hard time translating military skills into civilian job qualifications."
Employers also said their fears include concern:
- That troops with post traumatic stress may be "damaged" or have violent tendencies.
- That National Guard and Reserve troops will be called up for duty, leaving the company short-handed.
- That the majority of post-9/11 vets lack the college degrees or industry-specific expertise they'd need for senior positions, yet don't want lower-level jobs employers feel are more appropriate for them.
- That vets too often seek jobs that they don't have the education or skills to do.
"There are folks who get it, are coming out of the service and say 'I realize I'm not going to be CEO,'" said Devin B. Holmes, CEO of Warriorgateway.org, a portal to help troops find help with employment, health questions, education and a range of other transition needs.
"There are also folks coming out and (saying) 'I want a GS14 position in the government,'" Holmes said, meaning the second highest level in the "General Schedule" of government pay — jobs that go to people with a lot of experience and/or a very high level of expertise in their field, and are management positions.
"You can achieve that if you work hard and do a good job ... but you're not going to get it on Day 1," Holmes said.
Officials say privately that part of the disconnect comes from a sense of entitlement among some troops, the feeling that they deserve a great job after doing duty that only a tiny fraction of Americans were willing to do. But Holmes said the larger reason is that troops lack an understanding of what some jobs entail and what experience and education is needed to get them — a problem he thinks the Transition Assistance Program should work on.