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Despite Skills, Veterans Struggle in Job Market

U.S Senator Kirsten Gillibrand listened closely to veteran students from Mercy College during a roundtable discussion on veteran unemployment.

Bart Bochenski is a sophomore at , and a veteran of the U.S Marine Corps. During his deployment, Bochenksi had a combat assignment operating equipment most civilians will never see or use. However without a formal degree, employers often overlook his profound skill set.

At a roundtable discussion at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry Tuesday, U.S Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) listened to veterans describe their frustrating experiences with unemployment. Gillibrand acknowledged that veterans, like Bochenski, have invaluable skills employers should not overlook. 

"Those are hydraulic systems and logistics skills that many employers should be able to use,” Gillibrand said.

Tuesday’s event, also attended by U.S. Congressman Eliot Engel (D-NY-17) and New York State Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-NY-35), was the beginning of what Gillibrand called “a working group” dedicated to tackling the issue of veteran unemployment. Panelists were on hand from veterans service agencies in Westchester and Rockland counties, the New York State Department of Labor and several businesses.

“Service to our country should ensure housing, educational opportunities and certainly good paying jobs, which is why Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s leadership on this issue is so important,” Stewart-Cousins said, adding that the national unemployment rate for veterans had skyrocketed to nearly 20 percent.

A recent story on the website Army Times reported Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were experiencing 13.5 percent unemployment for female veterans and 15.5 percent for male veterans, both well above the national rate of 9 percent reported for February by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Andrew Person, a former member of the U.S. Navy and Mercy College's director of veterans' affairs, cut to the heart of the problem.

“Many GIs only have a high school diploma; despite all their military experience, their education on a resume does not look as impressive,” said Person. That makes it very difficult to compete for jobs in the current market. It also obscures what veterans may have to offer.

Person said the average age of the service personnel on the USS George Washington when he served was 20 years old. Though young GIs may operate millions of dollars worth of sophisticated equipment, that doesn’t mean employers know what to do with them when they apply for jobs.

“I only know what you are talking about because I was in the service myself,” said Rob Shovlin, president and CEO of Aureon, a bio-tech company in Yonkers. Shovlin said potential employers and human resources specialists simply do not understand how to decipher the jargon-laden descriptions of military jobs, skills and ranks. 

Shovlin said tax credits were helpful incentives, but employers needed more targeted assistance to understand that veterans bring more to the table than soft concepts like "leadership skills" and "teamwork."

Jack Murphy, a Mercy College freshman, said when he tells people he was in Army Special Operations they conjure up action movie images. “They think it’s like a cartoon, like Rambo or something,” he said, adding that few of his fellow students and even his professors realize how much managerial responsibility he had in Iraq—without using weapons at all. 

Senator Gillibrand listened intently to the students who recounted their difficulty in transitioning from the structure of military life to the less certain terrain of the job market. 

Bart Rodriguez, now a graduate student at Mercy College, is president of a student-led club for veterans. A Marines during Iraqi Freedom, Rodriguez knew he wanted to return to Mercy College to complete his psychology degree even though he had only finished only one semester before his service. But he knows desire isn't always enough.

“There was nothing here for veterans when we returned,” he said. “We help one another with tutoring, books, events.”

Rodriguez also mentioned that Mercy College's administration offers a key support. 

Mercy College Provost Dr. Michael Sperling says the school’s approach was “the right thing to do.” Rather than leaving veteran students to navigate the bureaucracy on their own, Mercy dedicated an administrative position to helping their military students with required paperwork and academic advising.

Support for veterans when they return is one of the essential elements for success, said Pearson, whose job is to recruit veterans and make sure they have the resources they need to graduate. He is convinced the best thing a solider can do after leaving the armed services is earn a degree.

“To get good jobs, the easiest thing we can do is get them into college first,” said Person. “The Post- 9/11 GI Bill offers veterans a chance to serve themselves.”

Pearson said there are several challenges facing veterans even when they decide to pursue a degree: affordability, transferability of military credits, flexibility, credibility and support are just a few. 

Pearson regularly reaches out to representatives from the National Guard and Reserves to connect with returning soldiers and get them enrolled as quickly as possible.

Without these opportunities, “they go out into the woodwork,” Pearson said. “The GI bill is awesome, but it’s high maintenance."

Every semester complicated forms must be submitted for veterans to receive the tuition reimbursement, books and housing allowances that let them to pursue costly college degrees. Since Person’s position was instated in 2009, Mercy College has tripled its military enrollment.

Though Tuesday's event was just the beginning of a long and difficult process, Gillibrand promised her staff would reach out the veterans group in coming weeks to help find effective employment solutions.

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