Like Hughes, many of the seekers at this military job fair are so fresh from the service they've yet to grow out of their crew cuts or their ma'ams and sirs. While unemployment among all veterans was a low 3.8% nationwide in 2006 (vs. 4.4% for the non-veteran population), for the country's newest, youngest and sometimes battle-scarred former service members, finding jobs post-service is proving to be frustrating. Of the 332,000 veterans between age 20 and 24, the unemployment rate was 10.4% in 2006, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (it's 8% among non-veterans of the same age group). Young vets say the military's job-placement programs are well-meaning but often ineffective. They say they don't know how to convey the benefits of their military experience to civilian employers.
Young vets who need help finding work are getting it online. Over the past year or so, Internet forums connecting veterans to jobs have multiplied. Job boards including TheLadders and CareerBuilder have introduced channels dedicated to veterans. Monster acquired Military.com, which sponsored the Chicago event and will do 22 more fairs this year. Even the government launched a web campaign last fall called HireVetsFirst.gov. It's hard to say what effect these online job finders have had so far. But one statistic is encouraging: unemployment among veterans ages 20 to 24 is down from a recent high of 15.6% in 2005.
In one regard, the sheer array of opportunities, programs and scholarships available to vets can be more confusing and overwhelming than helpful. The Servicemembers' Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the Montgomery G.I. Bill, provides for education and retraining; Congress is currently considering a "post-9/11" version of the bill with even greater benefits. The departments of Defense, Labor and Veterans Affairs jointly launched the Transition Assistance Program in 1989, and each branch of the military has since then added its own workshops. States help, too, with internship programs for wounded vets or assistance in launching businesses. Then there are the corporations Home Depot, Union Pacific, Starbucks, Raytheon, Dunkin' Donuts, Merrill Lynch that trumpet veteran-hiring programs with names like Operation Career Front.
All the good intentions fail to address a central issue: many recent vets simply aren't prepared or equipped for the real-world job hunt. At Military.com's career fair, some job seekers' business cards bore nine-digit phone numbers and incorrectly written e-mail addresses. One vet had a two-page résumé in a complicated font, its objective reading, "to display extensive job skills." Some struggled visibly with etiquette, lurking far from the booths, sneaking up only to grab a brochure. Many, including Hughes, left the Chicago hotel entirely uncertain about their prospects.
Uncertainty is endemic to the job hunt, and anathema to soldiers like Hughes. He trained for all four posts on the eight-wheeled, tank-like vehicles called Strykers, and deployed to Iraq in October 2004. On his first day in Mosul he was shot at. A few months later, the driver of the Stryker ahead of his was killed by a roadside bomb. Still, he grew to love his work. "I didn't have that feeling until I went to Iraq, that I was good at something," he says. "Things fell into place everybody depending on me, letting me know I was doing a good job." Hughes had every intention of reupping. His wife had other ideas. After he "separated" from the military last spring, they moved to her hometown of Batavia, Ill., into the basement of her parents' split-level home. He found seasonal work measuring flooring, and, as that work dried up, filled out applications at Target and Home Depot with growing panic, "everywhere except fast food."
Last December, the job hunt broke him down. "The stress factor here is real different," he says. "There, I was worried about the dying, but that was it. They give you a plan and you do it. Here at home I have so many more things to worry about." He was admitted to the VA hospital in Hines, Ill., and treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. A psychiatrist there introduced him to David Hansberger, who was hired by the VA to procure, among other things, jobs for area veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. Hansberger showed Hughes how to use the Web to apply for jobs. He helped Hughes post a résumé online and set up an e-mail address. He called Hughes three times a week for updates. He drove Hughes to the Military.com job fair, the first Hughes ever attended.
Employers targeting veterans cite loyalty, drive and leadership among their desirable traits as employees. Two police departments and a security company have booths at this job fair; the similar work ethic and camaraderie make for "smooth transitions" for soldiers, says Khalil Muhammad, a Chicago police officer and former Army captain. Thrivent Financial for Lutherans is here to double its hiring of veterans from 4% to 8%; Jackie Hintz, its director of career entry, says the self-motivation required of military members translates well to jobs as contracted financial representatives.
With employers professing demand for veterans, and legions of veterans seeking work, where, then, is the problem? One clue comes up again and again in discussions with job-seeking vets: they miss their old jobs. Despite the rigid hierarchy, numbing bureaucracy and moments of absolute, life-threatening terror the military is a fine employer in many ways. "You're doing meaningful work, being part of something bigger than yourself," says Robin O'Bannon, 38, who retired from the Air Force in 2005.
Another problem is that when employers say they want to hire veterans, what they mean is they want to hire officers. Capt. Rob Lazaro, 28, is preparing for his planned departure from the Army this August by perusing openings on USAJobs.com and Military.com and establishing contact with veterans at employers of interest. With his experience as a public affairs officer, his Internet and networking savvy, and degrees from the University of Texas and Northwestern, he'll likely have his pick of offers. "For those of us with white-collar jobs, it's easy," he admits. "But for foot soldiers or someone in artillery, how does that translate?"
For Hughes, the job fair was his lucky break. He applied to the local cable company, which called him the next day. After a drug test, he was hired. He started work as a technician April 16. "It's not the most glorious job, but it's steady and it's a paycheck," he says. "I'm happy. My wife's happy." And he's looking ahead. At the job fair, he also came across DeVry University, which had a booth there to entice vets to return to school. Hughes is signing up for online courses to learn to design video games. He's ready for his next mission.