A s military forces continue drawing down from deployments abroad, more service members are transitioning back into the civilian workforce. A recent job fair in Anchorage is just one of the ways the state is spending resources to match vets with employers in the public and private sectors to combat the nation-wide problem of veteran unemployment.
Dressed in her camo fatigues on a break from work at Joint Base Elmendor-Richardson, Sargent Alena Withers still has another year in the Army, but thinks she’s behind the curve when it comes to job hunting.
“I feel like I should have started a long time ago,” Withers said, taking a break from perusing folding tables covered in handouts and displays from the 130 companies that attended the fair. “Honestly, I feel like I never should have taken my eyes off the civilian job market. Finding a job, and just learning how to network–that’s a skill-set in and of itself.”
At 15%, Alaska has the highest number of vets per capita of any state in the nation. They face unemployment rates below their un-enlisted counterparts, 5.1% for Alaska vets, compared to 6.4% unemployment for state residents overall. A state policy gives veterans priority at job centers, offers employers tax-credits, and organizes job fairs like the one at University Center in Midtown last Friday.
As a combat medic in Afghanistan Withers shouldered a lot of responsibility, and is discouraged by the prospects for getting to carry those skills into her next job.
“The problem that I’ve been seeing is that I don’t have the civilian certifications that back up the training and the skill set that I’ve learned how to do,” she explained. “So I’m having to be forced to go back to school regardless of whether or not I’m really good at that job. And it kind of makes me feel like I should maybe just start over and do an entry-level position outside of my field, because it takes a long time to learn to do aviation casualties on an on-board.”
Withers was with her friend Maria Gusto, who has been looking for a job since this summer after four years as an Army HR officer. It has not been going well. She thinks that civilians don’t always understand she not only learned a career field, but it was exceptionally difficult.
“We would train as if we were deployed,” she said, dressed in business attire and holding an attache case.
“We would get attacked in the middle of the night, or the middle of the day. And you’re in the middle of doing your work and you have to go into your bunker,” she continued. “So it’s definitely more stressful than the civilian life.”
Employers often see job candidates’ time in the service as a black box, not always knowing what happened inside. Many veterans may have never applied for a job, and not know how to translate their work histories into civilian terms. Craig Crawford is a vice-president at CH2M Hill, one of the companies collecting resumes at a booth near an athletic store, and he sees there needs to be more work done bridging the all-too-frequent employment gap after service that can cause short-term joblessness to drag on long-term.
CH2M Hill does a lot of construction and support services for Alaska’s oil and gas industry. That’s partly because many veterans learned how to do the exact same work in the service.
“Just about every job you can imagine in the military is reflected again in the oil and gas field,” Crawford explained. “We gotta have security, we gotta have administrative help, we have to have welders, pipe-fitters, mill-wrights–all of those skill sets. We have to have frontline supervision, which looks like a sergeant, we gotta have captains, lieutenants, even a few generals.”
Crawford believes the current national troop draw-down is creating a much-needed state-side pool of skilled labor. It is a sensible, but slightly optimistic perspective.
Steven Williams coordinates employment for veterans with the state’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development, and highlighted another common experience for veterans leaving the armed forces: feeling overqualified for civilian life.
“I think one of the challenges with transitioning out of the military is having to start from scratch,” said Williams, who spent more than a decade in the National Guard, including a tour of Iraq spent mostly around the oil fields in Kirkuk. “When I was deployed I was 20-years-old, and more than just equipment–I was trusted with lots of equipment there, vehicles–but also just the lives of my supervisors. And then the struggle comes when you get to the civilian sector, and you come with all this experience and all this responsibility–and you’re trusted with a broom.”
Sargent Alena Withers’s priorities for the years ahead are starting a family and going back to school. She is keeping her eyes and ears open–but for a new job, not yet a new career. Still, she said job fairs like Friday’s are important for getting a better sense of the part-time work that’s out there.
“I didn’t realize that there were jobs outside of the medical field that are still sort of para-medical. And what they provide was services–in-home services. They’ll do your laundry, clean your house. You know, whatever you need done on an hourly basis.”
Withers traded info with one such company, and was happy to have made the connection. Even if it is a year away from potentially panning out.