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.

Transitioning veterans share job-hunting experiences

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

Whether service members are medically discharged, leave at the end of their enlistment contract or retire after 20 years, they all face a transition forcing them to find new goals and a new source of income.

Whether veterans choose to immediately look for full-time work in the civilian sector or further their education, the challenges they encounter affect each service member differently, said Alex Muehleisen, a satellite communications systems operator-maintainer at Fort Carson whose Army enlistment contract ends this month.

“The challenges soldiers face who are transitioning out of infantry and tank jobs typically aren’t the same as those who are working in technical fields,” he said. “I think some veterans, especially those who have been in the military for a long time, become institutionalized. When you leave the military, it’s important to realize that you have to put yourself out in the community and not wait to be told what to do.”

Getting connected

As important as it is for local businesses to hire veterans, it’s just as crucial that veterans put in effort to get connected in Colorado Springs.

“It’s a two-way street,” said Jonathon Ward, a satellite communications systems operator-maintainer in the Army whose enlistment contract ends in April. “You can’t just have one side doing all the work while the other sits and receives all the benefits. Nothing in this world is free and veterans need to be active in the community.”

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Muehleisen has been to three networking events in the community, organized by the Mt. Carmel Center of Excellence, a nonprofit resource designed to help veterans transition from the military. He said from that experience, he’s been able to get to know others and exchange ideas on cybersecurity.

“I think direct networking is the best thing a veteran can do to effectively translate their skills to civilians [employers],” he said. “If service members are in a technical field, they should try to connect with civilian contractors. They can introduce you to other people and tell you the right lingo to better yourself when looking for a civilian job.”

Muehleisen plans to work as a network engineer in the private sector following his departure from the Army. He was offered a job by a local recruiter who he met through a previous contractor at Fort Carson.

Information overload

There are established programs in Colorado Springs to assist veterans in preparing for interviews, sharpening their resumes and utilizing their post-9/11 GI Bill.

But not all veterans want to start a new career, said Corrie Newkirk.

“There is a percentage that simply want a sustainable job to pay their bills and feed their families,” she said. “Not everyone wants to sort through all the information — they just want the basics. I don’t feel like a lot of the information is designed in a way to flow like that.”

The skills gap report of the Pikes Peak Region recently revealed there is a shortage in filling middle-skill jobs, and it found that most companies don’t fully understand the benefits of hiring veterans.

Education benefits

Some soldiers don’t understand how to use the benefits available in the post-9/11 GI Bill, Muehleisen said. The educational benefits are designed to help veterans transition to civilian life by providing them a path to college degrees, technical training and certifications.

“The Acquisition Tuition Assistance Program provides soldiers with detailed information on Veterans Affairs benefits and is helpful, but I think service members tend to get overwhelmed,” Muehleisen said. “I think they need more one-on-one support to get all of their questions answered, instead of just attending a 50-person class.”

Veterans also need to do their research and go beyond what the Army provides, he said.

“Take your time finding a good program to use your GI bill,” he said. “Identify what you’re looking for and what you need to do to make yourself attractive to employers. For me, it was getting certifications. I researched which ones were most crucial in my field and used my GI bill to pay for them.”

Negative connotations

One word Newkirk said she was tired of hearing from employers when they reviewed her resume was: “overqualified.”

“When a person is looking for job, they’re looking for a job,” she said. “Another challenge is employers not wanting to meet salary expectations. I understand businesses want to turn a profit, but at least offer your employees benefits. It’s not equitable. That’s where there needs to be a cultural paradigm shift.”

Ward said he thinks some employers have an unfair view of hiring veterans because of political ideologies.

“There are great skills veterans can offer employers,” Ward said. “The Army equips soldiers with great critical thinking and problem-solving skills. They also instill leadership in the ones who are willing to take charge and not just pass their time in the military. There are soldiers who are active in the military and end up good leaders because they were in situations where they had to take control.”

Emotional struggles

After serving 11 years in the Army, Newkirk was medically discharged in 1987. During the post-Vietnam era, she said she received no support in preparing her for what the transition would feel like emotionally.

“I was a part of military intelligence and reached the rank of E-5 promotable,” she said. “When you’re used to a certain standard of what you can do and dealing with the emotional side of not being able to do those things, it was devastating. I went into the military with the intention of retiring. It was my career and I loved what I did.”

Newkirk moved to Colorado Springs in 1989 and has worked different jobs in search of a good opportunity that will allow her flexibility due to her long-term chronic pain.

“I think things are getting better since the veteran population is growing.,” she said. “Although I’m not looking for a full-time opportunity, I’m still trying to learn more about veteran resources here. Just this past year, I’ve learned about opportunities I didn’t even know existed.