Job hunt tough battle for vets

TUMWATER - Eric Zabala, 25, is a success story.

A month after he left the active-duty ranks at Fort Lewis in April 2006, he landed a full-time job at Cardinal CG, which manufactures glass for home windows and doors in Tumwater.

But that's not the case for most who leave military service.

Sixty percent of the Washington Army National Guard and Reserve members who returned from a deployment in 2003 or 2004 did not have jobs in the state in 2005, according to state Employment Security Department research.

State agencies are pushing employers to hire more veterans, and doing more to publicize the programs and services that can benefit their job search in the wake of some troubling employment statistics.

More than 10,000 soldiers from the state have been called up to serve in the war since 9/11.

"Our citizen-soldiers are coming home and need help re-starting their careers. Washington businesses can make a difference by reaching out to recruit and hire veterans," Employment Security Commissioner Karen Lee said, making her own pitch in a news release recognizing three South Sound businesses for hiring veterans, including Cardinal Glass, through its Hire-A-Vet Challenge.

The problem isn't limited to soldiers or Washington state, however.

While the unemployment rates for male veterans compared with nonveterans in August 2005 were similar, the difference was startling for younger men who have served in uniform compared with those who hadn't. The unemployment rate for veterans ages 18 to 24 was 17.2 percent versus 10.4 percent for nonveterans, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Those who served in the military may be imbued with the qualities employers say they desperately seek: loyalty and an ability to work without constant supervision, in a team environment and under extreme pressure.

However, employers say many veterans lack basic skills, including writing cover letters and resumes and conducting an interview.

Another challenge is that veterans have to show that the skills they learned in their military occupation are what employers are looking for.

"They've been trained, and they have good demeanors," said Mitch Larsson, manager of the Sportsman's Warehouse in Lacey, also recognized by the state agency for hiring veterans. "In most cases, their work habits are great. They're regimented because of the way the service brings them up."

Zabala, the success story, also attends South Puget Sound Community College full time and plans to earn a computer-science degree from The Evergreen State College. The GI Bill is helping pay for his schooling.

The self-reliance and leadership skills he learned as a soldier were a big help in landing his new job.

"When you bring that into the civilian world, it makes it a lot easier," Zabala said.

But they are very different workplaces, Roger Shepard, regional chief for the Army Career and Alumni Program at Fort Lewis, explained. "That's one of the things that counselors are great at helping with: How do you translate those military skills into a civilian vernacular or vocabulary that an employer will understand?"

Congress mandated the program so soldiers who are retiring or completing their service are aware of all the programs and have the training to start a new career. It is available for every service member who serves on active duty at least 180 consecutive days.

The Army doesn't track soldiers' job successes after they leave, but Shepard said most find a comparable or better position in the civilian workforce.

Shepard tells the soldiers who come into the ACAP office that finding a good civilian job is similar to learning to play a video game.

"If you don't know how the game goes together or what the rules are, you're going to get beat every time," he explained. "This process is to help you learn those rules so that you can go out there and be competitive and put your best foot forward."

Zabala picked up some things from ACAP, but said his big break came when his father told him Cardinal Glass was hiring.

His five years in the active-duty Army included a stint guarding suspected terrorists at the naval prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Now the 2000 River Ridge High School graduate works the night shift, operating a computer that cuts glass windows and doors.

He said many of his friends have left the Army and had "fairly good success" in finding jobs. His civilian salary is comparable to what he earned as a sergeant, but he does miss the Army's monthly housing allowance that paid his rent off-post.

He added that success in any career comes from hard work.

"Basically, what you put into it is what you're going to get out of it," he said.

Olympian reporter Christian Hill can be reached at 360-754-5427 or at chill@theolympian.com. Business editor Jim Szymanski can be reached at 360-357-0748 or jszymanski@theolympian.com.

On the Web

For information on state employment services for veterans, go to: fortress.wa.gov/esd/portal/employment/veterans.