Employers across the country proudly claim their unwavering support of our uniformed military members. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of public, private, nonprofit and cooperative organizations with the sole mission of placing veterans in gainful employment when they return to civilian life. There are official DoD transition programs that ensure members considering separation do so with eyes open, and help prepare them for the physical, mental and cultural shift they will face. Yet despite all this, the unemployment rate for young veterans is currently pushing 30 percent.
These men and women are trained, disciplined, dedicated and self-sacrificing. They are provided with top-notch resume writing and interview training. They are given lists of countless employers nationwide that are "friendly" to the plight of the returning veteran. They are highly-motivated and trained to succeed under extremely difficult and stressful circumstances. But despite all this, Americans are still blind to what should considered a national embarrassment: our collective inability to provide jobs for the same individuals that were willing to provide their lives in our defense.
The solution is far from simple, and we should not ignore the efforts of the Department of Veterans Affairs through programs like the GI Bill and Vocational Rehabilitation and Training. But these initiatives merely combat the symptoms, and I believe some personal insight may help shed light on one potential root cause.
In the spring of 2000, I enlisted in the US Air Force and was comprehensively trained as an aircraft maintainer following basic training. My initial "Crew Chief" technical school was lauded, at the time, as one of the longest and most intensive programs in the Air Force Training Command. I spent countless hours in the classroom and the training hangar before even setting my eyes, let alone my hands, on an "operational" aircraft. After successful completion of a year long, multi-stage training pipeline, I was assigned to an elite squadron of F15E Strike Eagles at RAF Lakenheath, England. Upon arrival, I was mentored by a team of Master Crew Chiefs for two years before being deemed semi-competent. I was sent to numerous advanced technical training courses, some lasting months, covering all facets of aerospace maintenance and leadership. Hydraulic principals and practices, landing gear maintenance, engine starting procedures, turbine blade blending and repair all became my life. I enjoyed that success both mentally and financially when I was promoted to Staff Sergeant after only 4 years in uniform.
My resume was solid, my leadership skills and mental attitude were very positive—I believed I had set myself up for success regardless of where I sought employment after my enlistment ended.
Six years of endless deployments wore on me, and I decided to separate from uniform and use the skills and knowledge I had gained in the Air Force as a civilian aircraft maintainer. I began sending my resume to companies deemed "friendly" to veterans and was optimistic about finding a good paying job. Time passed, my separation date loomed and I heard nothing—no calls, no emails, nothing. It wasn’t long before I discovered the cause: I wasn't properly licensed to work on an aircraft—any aircraft—as a civilian.
I had listened to my mentors, had an impressive professional resume and had paid attention during transition briefings, yet I remained 100% unemployable in my career field once out of uniform. I began to flash back to my first technical training instructor and the employment applications to McDonalds he would staple to sub-par exams. "Do you want fries with that!" rang in my head every time I saw an empty email inbox.
I had been entrusted by the federal government with crushing responsibilities to not only a 60 million dollar aircraft and its crew, but additionally as a mentor and leader to future men and women who would be step forward when I departed. Despite my accomplishments, awards and military titles, the Federal Aviation Administration would not allow me to pump gas into a Piper Cub without formal licensing. Seems easy enough to fix though, right? I assumed that I would send in my training jacket and certificates wait a few weeks for the powers-that-be to approve my civilian license application and I could get back to work. I would certainly need to learn the “ropes” of a new shop, climb the pecking order again, and that was to be expected. The reality wasn’t even close. I needed to take civilian classes—a lot of classes. Then, I needed civilian experience under an already licensed civilian maintainer before being granted my already earned badge of knowledge. And finally, after all that, I needed to sit for an exam - an exam that costs money—a lot of money. Until these items were accomplished, I was unemployable as a trained aircraft mechanic. Despite six years of formal military service on some of the most complex pieces of aerospace engineering the world has ever seen, I couldn’t get so much as a call back before all the civilian boxes were checked.
For many reasons I simply could not jump through the required hoops in the given time before the rent was due. I had mouths to feed and I had already formally declined reenlistment with the personnel squadron. So, I did what any father would do: I acknowledged my preparation failures and swallowed my pride. I sold my motorcycles, traded my BMW, and cut back on other expenses and took a job as an assistant service manager at a motorcycle dealership. “At least you can still test-ride a bike once in a while”, I remember telling myself. I made half the salary I had hoped for, and a portion of that was commission based—a commission that slumped dramatically in winter months. I found work in the automotive service industry the following fall, hoping to avoid the winter slump that came with motorcycles, but without credentials or experience the only way to make ends meet was to clock over 70 hours a week, and even that was just enough to support a growing family.
I frequently found myself staring at the ribbons I’d earned years before, still pinned to my service coat and now collecting dust in the back of the closet. It wasn’t long before I yearned to wear it again and enjoy all the benefits, mental and financial, that I had worked so hard to earn in the past. I joined a local Air National Guard unit and landed a full time position back where my experience and training certificates were worth more than paper they were printed on. Under an aircraft I felt valuable; I felt appreciated, appreciated by a machine that unquestionably knew I had something to offer and never second guessed my ability. In the end however, my reasons for declining reenlistment in the first place remained. In early 2010 I decided that the mental and emotional toll a military career requires from my family was too great, and I again chose to hang up my uniform. I have since regrouped and re-attacked civilian life, and not unlike many returning veterans have found success as a small business owner. I do miss hearing a Jet Fuel Starter kick-down and the glow of cockpit lights on the ramp at night. They were always soothing even in the most stressful times.
I have kept in touch with many of my old military buddies over the last 2 years, and frequently hear stories of highly decorated combat medics who are not properly registered EMTs; or a truck driver that was tasked to convoy 5000 gallons of jet fuel over IED laden roads across Iraq and Afghanistan for years on end, but won’t be deemed worthy of driving 5000 gallons of skim milk from Des Moines to Denver without additional examination. America has nurses who aren’t licensed nurses, MP’s who aren’t certified law enforcement officers. Fire fighters, heavy equipment operators, electricians all tell similar stories across the country. Granted, these licensing issues are not without exception. There are instances where the veteran can either easily check the required boxes or finds very little in the way of licensing red tape when they do return home. Even with that conceded we would be foolish to think that stories and situations like mine are not contributing to the staggering unemployment rate I mentioned before.
It is only with the combined efforts of all parties involved that this issue can be addressed. The civilian employers touting their unwavering support of the US military must put their money where their mouth is. They should employ and compensate veterans at the licensed level during the licensing process. Additional supervision may be legally required in some instances, but this scenario should not be out of the question. The numerous non-profits and veterans job placement organizations need to recognize their role in this, and stop trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. In my case, it was suggested that I explore automotive maintenance instead. Having a job was nice, but underemployment is only marginally better than unemployment.Ideally, these organizations could form relationships with employers willing to work with licensing requirements and place veterans not simply in a job - but in a job where their credentials can create value.
Lastly, and this will be the biggest hurdle, governmental licensing agencies must work with veteran, employer and job placement organization by simply allowing the process to take place with limited interference. Government programs like Vocational Rehabilitation and Training could easily assist all veterans with licensing difficulties without massive retraining costs and not simply retraining disabled veterans, as they do now.
At the end of the day, we as a country must do what I was forced to do when I first left active duty. I failed to take all aspects of my situation into consideration, and I suffered accordingly. We have hundreds of thousands of highly trained men and women in America that are unemployed or are, at best, underemployed. We need to recognize our collective failure to prepare for their return home. We need to re-group and re-attack a possible root cause for the situation, move forward, and stop simply treating the symptoms.