COLUMBIA, S.C. – Sgt Maj. Chris Fletcher was a teenager the last time he had a civilian job.
The Peachtree City, Ga., native, now 40, flipped burgers at McDonald’s. He worked as a busboy at a convention center. And he was a clerk at a convenience store.
In 1993, Fletcher joined the U.S. Army. Since then he has been deployed to Bosnia and Macedonia, twice to Afghanistan and numerous times to Kuwait, rising to the highest noncommissioned rank. Now, 20 years later, with a wife and 18- and 15-year-old daughters, he is retiring from U.S. Army Central in Sumter, S.C. He’s entering the civilian job market with a little trepidation.
“It’s stepping out into the unknown,” said Fletcher. “The Army is all I know.”
He is not alone.
With the military set to be radically reduced after the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, thousands of soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines will have to step out of a uniform and into a business suit during a tough, post-recession job climate. They face challenges translating their military skills to civilian jobs – from writing a civilian resume, to just speaking English instead of using prolific military acronyms.
Also, with all U.S. combat troops expected to come home from Afghanistan by the end of this year, National Guard members and reserve troops will have to find civilian employment while still serving part time.
“A lot of these folks shouldered a heavy load in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Brig. Gen. Bradley Becker, commanding general of Columbia’s Fort Jackson, the nation’s largest military training base. “They have a lot of experience and are tested in battle. But while they are experienced and tested, they haven’t been in the job market.”
Numerous programs are available to help veterans find jobs, such as the Defense Department’s active duty Transition Assistance Program, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Hiring Our Heroes job fairs and Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve.
The U.S. military has about 1.4 million active duty soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. Another 850,000 troops serve in the National Guard and reserves.
About 170,000 troops leave the military each year due to normal attrition, such as retirement. But as the war in Afghanistan winds down – all combat troops are expected to be out of the country by the end of this year – more troops will be forced to leave the military as the different branches of the service contract.
The Army will see the deepest cuts, but how deep those cuts will be is still uncertain.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last month announced that the Obama administration wants to reduce the size of the Army to 440,000 or 450,000 soldiers. That’s down from a war-time high of 570,000.
But those drawdowns are less severe than the automatic, across-the-board cuts called for as a result of the debt ceiling standoff three years ago, a fight driven by deficit-conscious House Republicans. The sequester, as the cuts are called, would reduce the size of the Army to 420,000 soldiers if it isn’t repealed by Congress before 2017.
Under the Hagel plan, 36,700 additional troops would leave the military next year. That number will be higher under the sequester, though to what degree is uncertain.
The national unemployment rate among all veterans is about 7 percent, according to the U.S Chamber of Commerce. But the unemployment rate among post-9/11 veterans is 9.9 percent. And the rate for post-9/11 veterans under 25 years old is 20 percent.
Some younger veterans without families want to take some time off after difficult deployments, said Elisa Edwards, the civilian director of the South Carolina National Guard’s Service Member and Family Care Program, which staffs Operation Palmetto Employment. “They just want to stay with mom and dad for a while and play video games.”
But most veterans, she said, not only want to find jobs but to build on the experience they gained in the military. “We want to put them on a career path,” she said.
Ernie Lombardi, the Jacksonville, Fla.-based associate for the U.S. Chamber’s Hiring our Heroes program, has organized 67 job fairs in the Southeast in the past 18 months.
Much of the problem with younger veterans and often older service members, he said, is that they don’t know how to explain their military job skills to civilian human resource directors.
“They can’t translate them into language that civilians can understand,” he said.
Also, human resource directors don’t understand military jobs and jargon and how the veterans’ skills can apply to their businesses.
“Veterans need to be able to explain their skill sets, and civilian HR directors need to rethink their language skills, too,” Lombardi said.