Jobless on the Homefront

By Beacon Staff

Apollo Child spent a year fighting for his country in Iraq. When he returned home to Kalispell, a happy wife and newborn baby were waiting for him, but a job wasn’t. He’s been unemployed for two months now and he’s beginning to have flashbacks to his poverty-stricken childhood.

“I can’t let Nathan go through the same thing I did growing up,” Child said, gesturing to his 3-month-old son while sitting in a room at the Flathead Job Service last week.

If things don’t start turning around, Child might have to sign up for active duty again. At least he’ll have a job then.

“Reenlisting is my last-ditch option,” he said. “Right now with the economy, I’ll take any job because I have a beautiful baby and my beautiful wife and I’ll do anything for them.”

Child returned from Iraq in September after a one-year combat tour as a gunner with the Montana Army National Guard’s 1-163rd Combined Arms Battalion. He is 26 years old, eager and capable, yet he hasn’t found an employer willing to hire him. When employers look at his job experience, they see an extended departure from the civilian workforce. They see holes in his resume.

But Child wants them to see his work ethic, his proven accountability, his long days under the hot Iraqi desert sun with no vacation and no complaining. He wants employers to see him for the hard worker he knows he is. In a state with a soaring veteran unemployment rate, Child faces an uphill battle.

“I was not expecting this when I got back,” he said. “I was in Iraq for a year and I only got one day off – Christmas. It’s not like I’m a slacker.”

Montana’s unemployment rate for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is 20.1 percent, fourth highest in the nation, according to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Only Michigan, Indiana and Minnesota have higher rates. Montana also has the second most veterans per capita of any state behind Alaska.

Mike Flaherty of Montana’s Employer Support for the Guard and Reserve (ESGR) said his organization has teamed up with the Montana National Guard and job services across the state, along with the Montana Chamber of Commerce, in an effort to facilitate relationships between the business community and veterans. They recently held a job fair in Great Falls.

“These veterans are gone for a year – they’ve lost their connectivity somewhat to the business community and they’re behind the eight ball a little bit,” Flaherty said. “They need a little help. We’re saying, ‘We’re going to help you because of your service to the country. We’ll help you connect the dots.’”

The issue has caught the attention of Montana’s Democratic Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, the state’s only member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. The senators cosponsored a bipartisan veteran jobs bill that is expected to receive a vote in the U.S. Senate this week.

The legislation calls for a simplified tax credit system to encourage employers to hire veterans. The credits are worth up to $5,600 for hiring veterans who have been unemployed for more than six months, $2,400 for veterans who have been jobless for more than four weeks but less than six months, and $9,600 for veterans with service-related disabilities who have been job searching for more than six months. The bill also expands education and training opportunities.

President Barack Obama included a similar provision in his American Jobs Act to boost veteran employment, according to Baucus’ office. Recent news reports also confirmed that the U.S. Government Accountability Office is working on a report examining federal jobs programs for veterans in response to requests from Tester and Baucus.

“The unemployment level we are seeing among our veterans is a disgrace, and it hits home especially hard in Montana, because we have more vets per capita than almost anywhere else,” Baucus said. “This bill will make it easier for businesses to hire veterans and help make veterans more competitive in the job market – it’s a win for our economy and the right thing to do for our veterans.”

While there are numerous factors that may impede a veteran’s ability to secure employment, including psychological issues and other circumstances unique to each situation, one consistent theme revolves around the disconnect, both real and perceived, between the military and civilian worlds.

For one, military training and work experience often don’t count on civilian job resumes. Bill Gilbert, a local veterans employment representative at the Flathead Job Service, gave the example of a veteran driving fuel trucks overseas, “but when he comes back, it’s hard to prove that – there’s no record of that.”

“He could have tremendous experience, but it’s not recognized,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert is pleased that the legislation under consideration in the Senate addresses this concern, among others. In general, he said steps are being made under the Obama administration to chip away at veteran unemployment.

Employment specialist Trevor Gonser, left, works with veteran Dale Merrill on his resume at the Flathead Job Service in Kalispell.

Last week, in arguing on behalf of the bill, Tester said military experience should count when applying for civilian jobs.

“If you spend six years in the Army driving a truck, you ought to be able to get your commercial license a lot faster than someone who doesn’t have that experience,” Tester said. “That’s the kind of common-sense idea we need to be looking at.”

Child said there are other elements of division between civilians and the military that have more to do with perception than paperwork. Even if employers are aware of a veteran’s relevant job experience from the military, Child said some are prone to dismiss it “as just an Army thing” that doesn’t translate to civilian life. He said businesses haven’t been interested in the leadership course he took in the military.

“They don’t think I know how to be a manager, but I’ve trained – I’ve learned – to be a teacher, a leader,” he said. “I’ve actually led troops into battle. What more experience do you want?”

Dale Merrill, 54, has been dealing with similar challenges for years. After serving in the Army from 1975 to 1995, including combat missions in Somalia and the Middle East, Merrill returned to Montana where “I figured my 20 years of experience would help.” But he quickly discovered he was mistaken.

“Although I wouldn’t change anything, the 20 years I spent in the military put me 20 years behind my civilian counterparts,” Merrill said.

Merrill recently graduated from Flathead Valley Community College with a degree in IT management and web design but has been unable to find a job in the field. To make ends meet, he continues to work part-time at Town Pump, where he was once the manager.

“We’re not looking for a handout,” he said. “We’re just looking for an opportunity to show what we can do.”

Gilbert, who works with both Merrill and Child, said he and other veteran employment coordinators at local job services try to inform the business community about the value of veteran workers. Gilbert hands out a list of 10 reasons to hire a veteran containing words such as “respect for procedures,” “integrity” and “efficient performance.”

“They’re good workers,” he said. “You put something in front of them, they’ll get the job done.”

Flaherty of the ESGR echoes Gilbert’s emphasis on educating both companies and veterans about available opportunities. He said resources like the GI Bill apprenticeship program need to be widely promoted.

“There are some really cool tools out there,” Flaherty said. “We just need to ring the bell a lot louder. We’re always learning more and more about what’s available out there.”

On top of everything, Child faces the additional challenge of a injured right shoulder. Also, Gilbert said Child and other veterans of his generation are greeted with a much different job market in western Montana than their predecessors. Blue-collar industries favored by veterans, such as timber and construction, are struggling and are no longer reliable job sources.

But Child, who has applied for everything from storage unit front desk clerk to chef, is undeterred. He is planning to bartend for no pay at the VFW to develop a “new skill” and pad his resume.

He is also helping start a program through the VFW in which businesses can post job listings and seek out potential veteran employees. He said Lowe’s already contacts the VFW when it has job openings and he believes other companies will do the same once they hear about the program.

Child wants to spread a clear message, if not a plea.

“We need to let people know, ‘We’re here. We’re willing. We’re ready to work.’”

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