CITYWIDE — When Robert Contreras separated from the U.S. Navy in 2010, he had hoped to leave the service with a job waiting for him in the civilian world.

He spent the last three months of his career as an operations specialist looking for work. Although he landed a few interviews, there was nothing definite.

“I was starting to get a little worried,” Contreras said. “My savings were getting cut down.”

He eventually landed a job in the oil and gas industry through a military recruiting fair and stayed there for six months before the 15 to 16-hour days wore on him to the point of leaving.

Contreras is now a Santa Monica College student studying anthropology with plans to get a masters in public policy and advocate for fellow veterans. He knows that his experience looking for work is the rule rather than the exception, and was one of 46 veterans across the nation chosen to take stories of plight — and slow response time by the Veterans Administration — straight to Capitol Hill.

The unemployment rate amongst veterans who served on active duty any time since September 2001 was 9.9 percent in 2012, down 2.2 percent from the previous year, but still above the national unemployment rate of 7.8 percent at the end of 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That rate is even worse for those under 25 years old, which sits at 20 percent, said Ross Cohen, senior director of the Hiring our Heroes program, a campaign by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation to find employment for veterans.

Cohen, himself a veteran, was overseeing a veteran hiring fair kick off Tuesday at The Proud Bird, an aviation-themed restaurant near the Los Angeles International Airport.

The challenge that vets face isn’t necessarily a lack of skills or ability, it’s difficulty translating their activities over their years in the service into something that a civilian employer would recognize.

“The kinds of skills that they learn are incredible,” Cohen said. “It’s the world’s best leadership program, they have the ability to work with teams, achieve tasks under tight deadlines no matter what the obstacles.”

But when you come back from four to eight years in the military, you don’t think of how to put that into resume form, Cohen said.

Contreras, for one, was an operations specialist with the Navy. He handled radar communications and weapons systems, skills incomprehensible to someone outside of defense contractor work.

What he later learned to place on his resume were the “collateral” tasks of his job, like managing a $1 million parts budget, maintaining inventory levels and coordinating parts and equipment.

“Those are things that people outside the military can understand,” Contreras said.

To help with that problem, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce launched a new tool this week called the Personal Branding Resume Engine. The engine was created with the help of recruiters from small businesses and Fortune 500 companies to translate military tasks into “civilian speak.”

It forces the veteran to really consider the work that they did while in the service, looking beyond the title to describe the actual duties, Cohen said.

“It’s a next gen resume translator for veterans,” Cohen said.

The chamber is not acting in isolation to attack the veteran unemployment issue.

Congress passed the VOW (Veterans Opportunity to Work) to Hire Heroes Act in 2011, which aimed to create a seamless transition from the military into civilian life.

It provides extra options for education, training and offers tax credits for employers who hire veterans with disabilities connected to their time in the service.

There are also databases like the Veterans Job Bank for employers to post jobs specifically for former military personnel.

Although there’s a growing concern about the “war on terror” veterans, the government and service agencies are still trying to cope with veterans of much older wars.

Garry Johnson, 58, was in the Navy during the Vietnam War. Johnson says that he didn’t see active combat, just “pressed a button and bombs exploded,” but still returned home in the discord of the post-Vietnam era.

He ran into legal problems and was saddled with convictions, hampering his job search.

Local nonprofit Chrysalis, which specializes in getting people employed, helped him navigate the difficult waters of modern employment by outfitting him with some computer skills through a partnership with the Veterans Administration.

He is now waiting to get a final approval on a job with the Veterans Administration as a housekeeper.

“It’s a process. I’m quite happy about it,” Johnson said.

Getting veterans like Johnson and Contreras either employed or through school is only going to increase in importance as time goes on and conflicts in the Middle East begin to draw to a close, Cohen said.

“With one million veterans leaving the military in the next five years, this is not the time to rest on our laurels,” Cohen said.

 

ashley@smdp.com

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