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Posted at 01:57 PM ET, 11/11/2011

Uncertainty about skills, injuries dampens hiring of veterans

It’s rare for the Senate to agree on something these days, but Thursday’s tax credit amendment for companies that hire veterans garnered unanimous support. If it works, it could be a godsend for Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, who have a significantly higher unemployment rate than the rest of the population.

Nationwide, 12.1 percent of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are out of work, compared with 9 percent of the general population. So what’s keeping these recent veterans out of civilian jobs?

First, there are the countless environmental factors: After serving, many vets return to their hometowns, and those areas may or may not have robust job markets. Many also return with debilitating injuries that might delay their job searches for months, and few enlisted service members have bachelor’s degrees upon re-entering the workforce.

But there is also substantial amount of uncertainty among prospective employers. In a 2010 Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) survey, 60 percent of employers responded that “translating military skills to civilian job experience is a major challenge” when it comes to hiring veterans.

Emily King, a consultant who helps companies hire and retain veterans, said that although many organizations have a strong desire to hire veterans, many fall short when it comes to applying military experience to civilian job titles.

King points out that military resumes are not always “civilian-friendly,” meaning they are “notoriously filled with acronyms, alphabet soup, specific job classifications and things that don’t have a corollary in the civilian workplace.”

On top of that, civilian recruiters often don’t feel that harrowing combat scenarios apply to a relatively tame office setting.

“If an employer sees that an applicant drove a tank, it’s easy to say, ‘Well we don’t have tanks, so that experience has no applicability to what we do,’” King said. “What they don’t realize is the level of technical skill that is required to drive that tank.”

Lisa Rosser, a former Army telecommunications specialist who is also now a veteran-hiring consultant, said some companies have purposefully ramped up their hiring of military personnel. According to a January 2011 SHRM survey of 1,083 human resources professionals, large organizations were far more likely than small ones to have hired a veteran in the past 12 months

Rosser points to online retailer Amazon.com, which aims to place veterans in the company through its Amazon’s Warriors program. Rather than balking at tank-driving experience, Rosser said, they embrace it.

“They look for the veterans who were the ones actually out there shooting things because those missions are like individual projects,” she said. “There are a lot of variables that have to be managed to achieve those goals — it translates well to the chaos of running a business.”

Mental health is another stumbling block for employers when it comes to hiring former soldiers. According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, about 11 to 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans in the U.S. have post traumatic stress disorder, a condition that can cause hyper-vigilance, flashbacks and other symptoms.

There are easy ways to accommodate workers with post traumatic stress disorder, King said. But the condition can still make employers uneasy. In the 2011 SHRM survey, more than half of respondents said they “didn’t know” whether it’s costly to accommodate workers with PTSD in the workplace or whether workers with the disorder are more likely than others to commit acts of violence.

“One of the misconceptions that I hear the most is that some of these accommodations are going to be prohibitively costly,” King said. “But the vast majority of accommodations cost far less than $500.”

For example, veterans afflicted with post traumatic stress disorder may prefer to sit facing a door rather than away from it, and those with traumatic brain injury, another common wartime condition, may have problems filtering sounds and would need noise-cancelling headphones.

The tax credit amendment, which now goes to the House of Representatives, would provide businesses with $5,600 for hiring veterans who have been searching for work for more than six months and up to $9,600 for hiring long-unemployed veterans with service-related disabilities.

King said the tax help is far from the only reason to hire veterans, however.

“If I have two otherwise equal candidates, there is a lot that I can know about what I’m going to get if I hire the veteran,” she said. “I know they’re coming with a strong work ethic and with a focus on results and a mission.”

By  |  01:57 PM ET, 11/11/2011

 
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