Transitioning disabled vets to the civilian workforce: the challenges and solutions [classic article]

As first seen in GI Money magazine

PART I

With the advent of the economic crisis in this country, statistics show that veterans have suffered high unemployment rates equal to or greater than that of the civilian population. There are more veterans seeking work today, thanks to service members returning from Iraq. Veterans face unique challenges when reentering the workforce, including misinformation about the nature and quality of military training and their needs as wartime military personnel.

How tough is the problem? As the Bureau of Labor pointed out last year, the unemployment rate for disabled veterans for all service periods was 8.2%, but the rate for veterans serving since 2001 – “Gulf War – II era vets” – was 10.2%. There were also some shocking statistics cited in BusinessWeek that the unemployment rates for the very youngest of veterans, aged 18 to 24, were as high as 30.4% in October, 2011.

On February 3, 2011, the Bureau of Labor released updated statistics covering January, 2012. The good news is that the unemployment percentage of all veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan is dropping, from 15.2% to 9.1%, comparing January, 2012 to January of 2011. Distressingly, however, the unemployment rate for women vets has grown rapidly, from 13.5% to 17.3% in one year. This is almost two and a half times the unemployment rate for men, which was 7.7%.

The Department of Veterans Affairs got to the crux of the issue in its opening statement for the 2011 Independent Budget: “People with disabilities, including disabled veterans, often encounter barriers to entry or reentry into the workforce or lack accommodations on the job; many have difficulty obtaining appropriate training, education, and job skills.”

Hope and solutions: in the upcoming installments of this article, GI Money will be providing concrete ideas for disabled vets to win the job hunt. Hopefully, we will be a source of motivation and encouragement for that transition to civilian work. We’re not the only ones who appreciate the challenges facing disabled vets.  Congenital amputee Kyle Maynard has been giving his time through the Wounded Warrior project (http://www.kyle-maynard.com ). With showings of the ESPN documentary of his life, motivational speeches, and even athletics, Maynard teaches vets to live his personal motto: “No Excuses”.  He has visited Walter Reed Army Medical Center several times, where he was born into a military family. As he tells GI Money, “Those guys are my heroes!” Using his status as a champion wrestler as a powerful example, he proves that being disabled “doesn’t mean you can’t compete”.

When asked whether there is any public investment that he’d like society to make for people with physical challenges, he strongly responds, “Yeah! Similar to any other civil rights movement. You don’t want ‘different’, you want equality.” We couldn’t agree more.

 

 

PART II

Can remote learning provide a solution for re-training disabled veterans? Online education may offer some new opportunities for the disabled vet looking to transition to civilian employment. Online schools offer distance learning for those who live in remote areas and offer a level of convenience for vets with disabilities that render travel difficult. However, some legislators – as recently profiled in the New York Times — view the for-profit/online institutions as targeting veterans with post 9/11 GI benefits as “cash cows”. Fortunately, there are many roads to success in gaining employment; GI Money has spoken many of the top experts and leaders in the field to get the best insight and advice for disabled vets.

Untangling the complex laws involving disabled veterans – GI Money spoke to Assistant National Legislative Director for Disabled American Veterans, John Wilson. We asked him to address the Post 9/11 bill and its roadblocks to some disabled vets: that only vets serving under the Armed Forces (opposed to National Guard) are eligible and also, that this assistance only applies to traditional bricks-and-mortar schools. Wilson points out, “We have been working with the other veterans’ service organizations to address the problems you’re talking about. Our concern has been that under the current Chapter 31, Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) program available from the Veterans Administration, you can get a smaller living stipend that you can use for college than under the Post- 9/11 GI Bill. You can get VR&E benefits if you have a 20% or higher service connected disability rating and an employment handicap. The VA will evaluate you to determine eligibility. The Post 9/11 Bill has a bigger stipend, a monthly rate equivalent to a married E-5. We contend that veterans should be able to pick the greater of the benefits. VR&E’s stipend is much less, just a few hundred dollars (but) if they use 9/11, they miss out on counseling, and employment advice. They miss out on things that they may need.”

When asked whether large online institutions such as Phoenix University have lobbied for change in the law, Wilson notes, “Oh, they are lobbying for change, these for profit universities! They’re very concerned.  I believe that online universities are here to stay and offer an option for disabled vets.”

GI Money asked Wilson to address the 12 year benefit eligibility period for disabled vets. He clarifies: “The clock starts when the disability is identified and rated. The veteran has the responsibility to file the claim.” It is crucial to get oneself identified as a disabled veteran and rated as to the percentage and degree of disability. Wilson says that sometimes, on an individual basis, a vet can go to the VRE at the VA and still get some benefits – even after 12 years. And, as he points out to GI Money, the vet shouldn’t hesitate to go and apply for benefits, even if years have passed since service. Wilson had an uncle who had a WWII service-related disability who received benefits decades later. Unfortunately, the uncle died before he received 12 years of benefits.

PART III

So, who’s hiring disabled vets and how can you get a job with them? Home Depot is one of the biggest employers in the country and very supportive of hiring vets. Communications Senior Manager for the company, Stephen Holmes, has concrete suggestions to get a position. “In 2010, for the first time in four years, Home Depot added to its head count.” He points out to GI Money that “seasonal employment” for Home Depot is different than “seasonal employment” wrapping gifts or playing Santa. Their work at Home Depot becomes the most intense in early spring. “Around the country, depending on the climate, mid-January is a good time to apply for seasonal jobs with us. Seasonal jobs are an excellent way to get a foot in the door with the company. Of course, some people just want a seasonal job, too.”

Let employers know that you are a veteran! Holmes gives what might seem an obvious suggestion, but many aren’t taking advantage of: “On the form, it’s optional to identify yourself as a veteran or active military. When we ask our HR how many vets or military we have, they say, ‘Here’s an estimate.’ Identify yourself as a vet or military! We proactively seek out people with military experience. They have fantastic attributes, they’re problem solvers. Every business involves problem solving. They have an excellent work ethic, respect for the customer.”

While you can apply his advice to all potential jobs, Holmes has further advice for disabled vets applying for a job at Home Depot: “Think about your military experience, how it applies. Walk around the store beforehand; some departments may interest you more than others. You may have home improvement knowledge, experience in electrical, plumbing, construction.” The disabled vet applying for a job at Home Depot doesn’t have to know everything Day 1, either. They offer extensive training in customer service, product knowledge, and project knowledge.

Dan McMackin, Public Relations representative for UPS, consulted with the company’s Corporate Workforce Planning Manager to let GI Money know: “We will never turn someone down who meets the essential job functions for a specific job.  The vast majority of our jobs are very physical in nature but . . . there are some jobs people of different disabilities could do. Folks need to show us what they can do and how they can add to our success.” This reiterates a point that disabled veterans would be wise to remember: there are all kinds of disabilities and your disability may not be much of a limitation at all to a particular job.

Home Depot’s Lead Developer, Joe Brown, spent over five years in the US Army and five years in the Georgia National Guard. Brown’s military career ended when he was injured while on patrol.  He was employed worked at Home Depot between his Army and National Guard days and worked with Home Depot when he returned stateside. Things weren’t always easy; he has permanent injuries and his position changed when he came home. Brown has stayed positive and has concrete suggestions for the transition period: “Accept help if you need it. Don’t bear the weight by yourself. Surf the web to seek out vets. Start a little group. Volunteer to help other vets.” He currently chairs MAG, Home Depot’s Military Appreciation Group. Brown’s experience serves as a valuable lesson: there’s no shame in getting help with your disabilities and the whole point is that the help will help you progress to the next level.

Ernest “Chip” Hafemeister is a Navy Vietnam vet. He faced several obstacles when he was discharged: he had a rough time transitioning with PTSD, a recession when he returned to civilian life, as well as a job that didn’t understand PTSD in those days and fired him. Still, he remains upbeat as he advises, “Don’t give up. Use the skills the military taught you to keep on keeping on. Take pride in yourself, for having served in a difficult time, and surviving. And if you have PTSD seek treatment ASAP so as to insure a better chance for a cure.”

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