Minding the gap: Despite successful military careers, veterans lag their civilian counterparts in finding long-term employment after leaving military service.
Minding the gap: Despite successful military careers, veterans lag their civilian counterparts in finding long-term employment after leaving military service.

(Editor’s note: This is the first in a series addressing factors, needs and solutions surrounding veteran unemployment in Colorado Springs.)

Despite increasing emphasis on bridging the gap between employers and transitioning veterans by Colorado Springs business and government groups, reports show there is a shortage both in filling middle-skills jobs and providing viable, sustainable employment for former military members.

What’s needed is increased communication, collaboration and coordination between all involved groups — businesses, job seekers and educators alike, said Terrance McWilliams, vice president of military and veteran affairs for El Pomar Foundation.

“We must focus on broadening partnerships to achieve the shared goal of taking care of transitioning veterans who want to stay in this community,” he said.

Another key goal: diversifying jobs in Colorado Springs.

“Regarding economic development, we need to entice other markets to relocate to this area,” McWilliams said. “Most veterans are hands-on, so manufacturing would be good for them, but we don’t have the opportunity here.”

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According to the 2015 Veteran Economic Opportunity Report, post-9/11 veterans are more than 20 percent more likely to be unemployed than civilians of the same age groups.

Of the 21.1 million military veterans in the United States, about 422,000 don’t have jobs.

Nationwide, more than 1 million service members are separating from the military between 2011 to 2016, according to the report, a joint effort by the departments of veterans affairs, defense, labor and education.

“The community is making strides to hire veterans — but we can do better,” McWilliams said.

It’s important to keep former military members in the city, he said. Military presence in Colorado Springs holds significant economic value, contributing to 40 percent of the region’s total economic activity.

“We already know we have a hard time retaining our youth in this community,” he said.  “We, as a community, need to be more aggressive in bringing in a diversified group of employers where we can provide a broad spectrum of employment training, not only to meet the needs of unemployed veterans, but everyone else.”

McWilliams retired from the Army as command sergeant major and senior enlisted adviser to Fort Carson’s commanding general after 31 years.

He said entities including the state, Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance, UCCS, local businesses, nonprofits, schools and military installations must take action together  to close the veteran unemployment gap.

“What sets today’s generation apart from our World War II generation is that our entire nation was impacted by the war,” he said. “Everyone was serving and if you weren’t overseas in the foxhole, you were here on the home front supporting the war efforts. Now, less than 1 percent of people in the nation are serving and there are communities who don’t have anyone serving within their immediate families.”

Identifying the gaps

About 1,000 service members in Colorado Springs transition out of the military every month to join the civilian community, but many are unable to translate their skills to the private sector.

“We have a lot of military members leaving the military service because they’re being forced out, and left with, ‘What do I do now?”’ McWilliams said. “That’s one of the toughest components — taking their skills acquired in the military and translating them into civilian terms where a civilian employer can understand.”

Eliminating stigma

According to the VA’s report, the national average duration of veteran military unemployment continues to rise from 18 weeks in the past six years to 22 weeks during 2013.

And the misguided stigma of post-traumatic stress from combat is one reason that veterans continue to find themselves out of work.

The only way to change the negative perception is to continually educate employers, McWilliams said.

“Everyone has some form of post-traumatic stress,” he said. “I don’t care what occupation you’re in, that’s just the course of being human. Any type of traumatic event in your life can trigger post-traumatic stress. I just think we’ve put too much emphasis on if you served in the military and deployed to combat, you automatically have post-traumatic stress.”

Communicating to employers that post-traumatic stress is manageable and veterans are still capable of performing  well on  the job is key to solving the unemployment gap, McWilliams said.

“Veterans don’t want to be viewed as an undesirable individual in society because of their military service,” he said.

The need for networking

According to a recent skills gap report assessing employers’ skill needs from the Pikes Peak Workforce Center, UCCS and Pikes Peak Community College, 97 percent of employees are hired through employee referrals and 92 percent through personal networking.

That’s something else that puts military service members at a disadvantage — there’s little opportunity to network. Many, new to the community, don’t even know where to start.

According to the skills gap report, only 51 percent find work through local job fairs that predominately feature call center, law enforcement, higher education and health care positions.

“When you look at a lot of jobs here, they require degrees or advanced degrees” McWilliams said.

“For veterans who possess the skills but don’t have those credentials, they are limited to going back to school or working low-paying jobs. We need other sectors to participate and to continually educate employers on the value of hiring veterans.”

Leveraging the GI Bill

Veterans do have one thing in their favor: They’re usually eligible for college benefits through the GI Bill, and complete school at higher rates than their civilian counterparts, according to the VA’s report.

The community is helping out by creating programs committed to training and hiring veterans such as Boots to Suits, Hire Our Heroes and the USO Transition 360 Alliance.

“We have 1,000 veterans on campus, and we’re helping them get on the right degree path and better utilize their GI Bill,” said Phillip Morris, program director of the Office of Veteran and Military Student Affairs at UCCS.

“I think the critical piece is trying to help the veteran truly dig deep and identify the skill sets that they bring to a potential employer. I also think it’s important for them to take their time and think long-term on their core values and where they want to be — instead of just signing up for the quickest and easiest program.”

Morris said Boots to Suits at UCCS connects junior- and senior-level student-veterans with career mentors inside industries that can use their degrees.

“When you’re serving, there is not much that is equivalent to a job interview,” he said. “We make sure there they are getting their resume reviewed, participating in mock interviews and we provide them with a tailored suit so they have the know-how, look and confidence to be successful when they graduate.”

Managing expectations

But veterans have to do their part to find jobs as well. They need to be realistic about duties and salary when searching for civilian jobs, McWilliams said.

“Veterans can be over-confident,” he said. “Especially when you’re talking about senior military because they are accustomed to being in charge. Now that the uniform is off and they’re no longer in charge, it can be a difficult transition. The key is managing those expectations and getting veterans to understand that they have to start over again.”

Findings from the 2015 Veterans Economic Opportunity Report

•  For the post-9/11 generation, veterans ages 18-34 had the highest unemployment rates.

•  Each year between 2004 and 2011, 29 percent (in 2007) to 53 percent (in 2010 and 2011) of veterans faced a period of unemployment within 15 months of separation.

•  Veterans who lack a post-high school education or training certification have more difficulty finding employment than their civilian counterparts.

•  The overall veteran unemployment rate was significantly higher than the non-veteran unemployment rate for all individuals older than 20.