NORFOLK, Va. — Phillip Slaughter left the army after 18 years and found a job similar to the one he had in uniform: behind the wheel of a truck. instead of towing food and bullets through war zones, he transported packages for FedEx.
It wasn’t what he wanted to do. The job aggravated her post-traumatic stress disorder. It would be three years and multiple jobs before he landed his dream job as a sourcing recruiter for a technology company.
“I think it’s the first job I’ve ever worked 10 months straight without quitting,” said Slaughter, 41, who lives in Clarksville, Tennessee.
Slaughter is a US military veteran who found a job he loves at a time when the nation is experiencing one of the lowest monthly levels of unemployment for registered veterans. But the rate, 2.7% in October, may mask the difficulty of a transition that sometimes takes years of working unfulfilling jobs, while forging a new identity and purpose beyond serving one’s country.
“Even though (veteran unemployment) is low, I’m interested in seeing a survey of how many people are happy in the position they’re in,” said Slaughter, who also runs his own consulting firm for other veterans.
Veterans make up about 7% of the civilian population, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Its unemployment rate can help gauge the nation’s efforts to help former service members, experts say. You can also reflect on the military and how they prepare outgoing personnel. High veteran unemployment is not good for recruiting.
For this Veterans Day, a handful of former service members spoke about their job search experiences at a time when the unemployment rate for veterans is so low. For some, it was easy, but others have struggled.
Pierson Gest, a former Army infantryman, landed his first post-military job in August as a designer for hydroelectric systems in California.
Gest joined during the Great Recession, knowing he would eventually go to school on the GI Bill. Starting college in 2017 was difficult at first as he developed study habits. But he got used to it and got his engineering degree in June.
“I was lucky enough to negotiate a six-figure salary,” said Gest, 37, who lives outside San Francisco. “And I definitely used and leveraged my military experience to negotiate that salary on top of my college degree.”
Across the country in Florida, Thomas Holmes is still searching for his dream job.
Holmes, 46, left the Air Force in 2012 after 17 years, during which he maintained parachute systems for various types of aircraft, from F-15 fighter jets to U-2 spy planes.
He said the only full-time job he’s ever worked, in the billing and claims department of a warehouse office, was toxic. He resigned after about 18 months.
Holmes used the GI Bill to earn three degrees, including a master’s degree in sports management. He found part-time work in the industry, but rising gas prices and the lure of a more consistent schedule prompted him to work at a nearby UPS store.
“I’ve applied for a lot of jobs — county jobs, state jobs, all kinds of things,” said Holmes, who lives outside of Tampa. “And then all I get is, ‘Well, thank you for your service.'”
Jayla Hair’s transition from the Navy to civilian paralegal was not an easy one, despite a bachelor’s degree in the field and seemingly transferable skills.
Hair, 30, said he applied for about 300 jobs over eight months. After seeking help from a Navy program and friends, Hair reviewed her resume and was eventually presented with job interviews. But prospective employers cited her lack of experience with state law and civil courts.
Hair took temporary jobs in the legal field and recently landed a full-time position as a paralegal for a Fortune 500 company in the Chicago area.
“Just having my military experience wasn’t enough,” said Hair, who plans to pursue a law degree in the future. “If it wasn’t for having these temp jobs to build my civilian resume, I don’t know where I’d be right now.”
Hair got his job at a time when veteran unemployment is mostly down. The annual unemployment rate for veterans fell steadily from 8.7% in 2010 to 3.1% in 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Last year, after a rebound fueled by the coronavirus pandemic, the annual rate was 4.4%. But the seasonally adjusted monthly percentage in March was 2.4, hailed by President Joe Biden as tied for the lowest rate on record. August also reached that mark.
The tight job market and demand for workers after the coronavirus pandemic is likely a factor in low veteran unemployment rates, said Jeffrey B. Wenger, senior policy researcher at the Rand Corp. But so are significant efforts in recent years by the US military, Department of Veterans Affairs, and veterans’ service organizations to provide assistance to outgoing service members.
Training, such as resume writing, is now mandatory, and American companies have launched initiatives to hire hundreds of thousands of veterinarians.
Many of those businesses grew out of the Great Recession and the abundance of stressed service members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, which “brought the veterans employment crisis to a head,” Wenger said.
“And over the last 10 to 15 years, people have been investing more and more resources and more and more dedicated to solving that problem,” Wenger said.
Among them is Transition Overwatch, a company that runs professional learning programs across the country. CEO Sean Ofelt said the company focuses on what active duty members want to do as civilians, not what they’re doing or what skills they’ve learned in the military.
“A lot of military people don’t want to keep doing what they were doing,” said Ofelt, a former Navy SEAL. “We train them while they’re still on active duty and then launch them into a real career with all the support they need for the first 12 months.”
But the formula for supporting veterans has to encompass more than just employment. It should also focus on social challenges, said Karl Hamner, a professor of education at the University of Alabama.
Veterans can feel isolated after losing their tribe of fellow servicemen. Hamner said the new data indicates the loss may be especially acute for women because they formed strong bonds with one another while navigating a male-dominated military.
In a soon-to-be-released national survey of 4,700 female veterans conducted by Hamner and her colleagues, 70% said adjusting to civilian life was difficult; 71% said they needed more time to decide what they wanted to do.
“They had to prove themselves in a valuable and highly regarded profession,” Hamner said. “And now they’ve gone back to trying to figure out what it means to be a civilian woman and deal with all the standard discriminatory stuff.”