NAPERVILLE, Ill (Reuters) - When Matthew Burrell left the Army after eight years of service, he landed a job as a public relations contractor in Iraq. With a salary of $170,000, he figured military experience had finally paid off.
But five months after returning home to Chicago, 33-year old Burrell is unemployed and said his job search has been strange. Despite having six years experience as a public relations officer in the Army, companies treat him as if he just graduated from college.
“I can tell you for a fact that definitely in my field in public relations and marketing, private sector companies do not value (military experience),” Burrell said.
Burrell feels he is more than qualified for a job in the corporate PR world. But Burrell, along with many of what the Department of Labor says are 235,000 unemployed veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, has run into a frustrating problem.
Many U.S. companies, and sometimes veterans themselves, do not know how to translate military experience into civilian job skills. There is a disconnect between companies demanding a college degree and veterans’ giving confusing descriptions of their military experience to civilian employers.
That disconnect has contributed to veterans having an unemployment rate 2.6 percent higher than the general population, according to September’s Bureau of Labor Statistics unemployment report. As U.S. involvement in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars winds down, lawmakers and organizations of all stripes have launched efforts to help veterans find work.
President Barack Obama this week announced measures, including $120 million in total tax breaks to companies that hire veterans.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said it hopes to get 15,000 veterans hired through 100 job fairs around the country for veterans this year. One of those job fairs was held recently in Naperville, a Chicago suburb, giving 86 companies the chance to meet more than 600 veterans.
One problem is that veterans need to articulate more clearly to companies their experience, said Kevin Schmiegel, vice president of veteran’s employment programs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Hiring managers who have not served in the military are often bewildered by the jargon used by soldiers and weapons specialists, said Becky Brillon, who directs a program at the Community Career Center in Naperville.
A military job title might be listed like this: “25 Romeo visual and media equipment operator and maintainer.”
“If somebody was artillery, or a sharpshooter or a sniper, you have to tone that down in the civilian world. It’s more about being detail-oriented, precise and focused,” Brillon said.
But on the other side of that coin, private employers should give more credit to the experience and skills veterans acquire in the military, Schmiegel said.
Veteran unemployment could fall dramatically if companies were willing to give jobs that normally require credentialing or a college diploma to veterans with military experience in the same role, Schmiegel said. He also said companies should offer training to veterans to help connect military experience to workplace skills.
Some military jobs, like a mechanic or technician, are more easily transferred to a private sector job than others.
David Berry served as a medic in the Army 25 years ago, but did not enter the private-sector medical field because of how much extra training he would need, he said.
Berry said he was performing a range of medical treatments in the military that would have required at least an associate college degree to get a similar job in the private sector.
“The private sector has its own set of rules and they don’t all correspond with what the military says,” Berry said. “I didn’t get anything from the military saying, ‘He’s qualified, and we back this person up for this position because he’s done this, this and that.'”
The credentials and certificates that the military does give out for certain forms of training still do not seem to carry much weight.
Rick Combs, a 27-year old who retired as a Sergeant in the Army, says he was given management training in the military as part of becoming a Sergeant. So far, that training has not translated into a comparable private-sector job.
“You can come in, and slap something down that says, ‘Here, the military says I can lead people. Give me a department and I will make it dance for you,'” Combs said. “I haven’t had the opportunity on the civilian side yet.”
Combs said he’s going back to school to become a network technician, an area he worked in for the Army.
Schmiegel, from the Chamber of Commerce, said something must be done for veterans to find jobs or the country’s voluntary armed forces will not find as many willing recruits.
“We are telling (recruits) right now that when they leave the service four years from now that they’re going to be better off. That they’re going to have a better job. That they’re going to be more marketable. And the fact is, right now they’re not,” Schmiegel said.
Editing by Greg McCune