Veterans Face New Enemy: Unemployment

Veterans lined up for a job fair onboard the USS Intrepid in New York. i i

Veterans lined up Monday for a job fair onboard the USS Intrepid, the decommissioned aircraft carrier that's docked along the Hudson River in Manhattan. The fair drew more than 2,500 people. Jim Zarroli/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jim Zarroli/NPR
Veterans lined up for a job fair onboard the USS Intrepid in New York.

Veterans lined up Monday for a job fair onboard the USS Intrepid, the decommissioned aircraft carrier that's docked along the Hudson River in Manhattan. The fair drew more than 2,500 people.

Jim Zarroli/NPR

Kenneth Gary spent the Gulf War in the Army driving M1 tanks. Today, at 44, he's waging another kind of battle altogether — against unemployment.

"It's tough. It's really, really tough. As you can see, there's a lot of people out here looking for jobs," he says grimly, pointing to the crowds of men and women milling around him aboard the USS Intrepid, the decommissioned aircraft carrier that's docked along the Hudson River in Manhattan.

The Intrepid, which has been converted into a museum, was — perhaps fittingly — the site of a job fair for veterans Monday sponsored by the New York Labor Department. It drew more than 2,500 people. They had the chance to meet with recruiters from companies like Federal Express, Sears and Lowe's, and from public-sector employers like Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and the Census Bureau.

The unemployment rate in New York is 9 percent, but for combat-age veterans it's nearly double that, says M. Patricia Smith, the state's commissioner of labor.

Interrupted Lives

Many recent veterans have seen multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, which has made it much harder for them to complete their education, Smith says.

"What we're seeing now is that veterans' lives are disrupted in ways we hadn't seen in the past. It's a tough employment climate for everyone, but for someone like that I think it becomes ever more difficult," she says.

That's the problem confronting Roberto Alor, who left the Army nearly two years ago and has been searching for work ever since. Employers are looking for people with experience and education, something he lacks, he says.

"Every time I was in the Army, I had to drop my classes," Alor says.

He lives with his parents in their apartment in uptown Manhattan and says he will take any job that's available, even fast food.

But an education is no guarantee that a veteran will escape the unemployment rolls.

After leaving the Army, Gary got an associate's degree and landed a retail job at Costco, but he was laid off in January. While he recently landed a part-time job as an airport ramp agent, it's not enough to support him and his wife.

"From January until October, I was living on my 401(k). That's run out and I need a permanent job right now," he says. He's also had to apply for food stamps for the first time in his life, and it clearly pains him. "I just want to get back on my feet."

No Respect

Another problem for veterans is that their skills aren't easily understood by employers, Smith says. For instance, someone who managed a warehouse at a military base might be an ideal candidate for certain retail jobs, but it can be hard to convince recruiters he or she is qualified, the labor commissioner says.

Joseph McDonough, who left the Marines a few months ago and still has the closely cropped haircut to show for it, thinks military service doesn't count for much with potential employers.

"It's like, 'Oh, they didn't go away to college. I went to college. I know more than them.' They kind of sneer at you," he says. "The only people who actually see it as being anything glorious are people like senior citizens, who know that somebody sacrificed something."

For his part, McDonough showed up at the job fair hoping to find something temporary to help him pay the bills.

But like any good Marine, he's ready to confront the challenges he faces: McDonough plans to go to college, to study accounting.

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