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Back from war, young vets struggle to find good jobs

By Matthew A. Ward

SUFFOLK, Va (Reuters) - Given the high unemployment rate among young male veterans, 25-year-old Thomas Jones and 31-year-old Vincent Moore Jr. are thankful to at least have work at a Suffolk, Virginia video game store.

But acquiring good-paying jobs that match the excitement of the military and the skills they learned during their service has proven more elusive.

"Finding the small-time jobs, maybe at a restaurant or working in retail, is one thing, but a lot of guys out are looking for something a little more permanent," said Jones, an infantryman who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The average national unemployment rate for male veterans aged 18-24 who have served their country since September 2001 is staggering: 28.3 percent were out of work in the second quarter of this year, up from 21.9 percent for all of last year, according to the Department of Labor.

Male veterans aged 25-34 have fared slightly better. An average of 14.5 percent were unemployed between April and June of this year, compared to 9.5 percent of non-veterans in the same age group.

Their plight hasn't gone unnoticed. The Department of Veterans Affairs has developed a website linking veterans and employers, and a new pilot program at eight college campuses connects counselors with veterans to help them make the most of their education.

The Chamber of Commerce in March launched Hiring Our Heroes, a year-long program including 100 hiring fairs aimed at helping veterans and their spouses find meaningful employment.

Efforts are particularly focused on young veterans and veterans with disabilities, said Ruth Fanning, director of Veterans Affairs' Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Service.

"What we're doing is helping them adjust to the fact that they're starting a new career and develop a plan for the best career for them," she said.

Young veterans "are the most vulnerable," she said. "They're least likely to have anything other than entry-level employment in their past."

LINKING SKILLS WITH JOBS

She described a wide range of strategies and tactics used by her staff, including early intervention and outreach to military bases and facilities and helping veterans achieve civilian certifications.

She said the VA and the Defense Department were actively looking at ways to better document for the civilian job market the skills service members learned in the military.

Those with some of the more specialized positions within the military, such as physicians and lawyers, have fared better on the outside than others like computer technicians and medics, she said.

That has certainly been the experience of Moore, who joined the Air Force after high school in 1999 and worked as a medical technician at bases in Georgia, Maryland, Kuwait and Iraq.

He said the experience he gained working in intensive care units and emergency rooms, where he performed tasks beyond the usual range of medical technicians, hasn't translated into landing a job at a civilian hospital. He plans to begin studying nursing this fall.

"The only certification that I left with that was recognizable was my Basic Life Support (CPR) certification," said Moore, whose military service ended in 2009.

"I was also a nationally registered emergency medical technician, but what I found on the outside is that's not even recognizable when you're talking about state (licensing). You have to be state licensed to do anything in the state of Virginia or anywhere else."

Jones, who served four years in the Marines before being discharged last November, struggles to cope with the monotony and low pay of his retail job.

He said his military service taught him problem solving, office administration and leadership, but he doesn't have any tangible proof of those skills to show prospective civilian employers.

He also plans to get more schooling and hopes that a business degree will allow him eventually to run his own restaurant.

Jones said he has encountered the added hurdle of prejudice, despite the fact that the Hampton Roads area where he lives is home to major Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Army and Coast Guard installations.

"Jarhead, that's what we're called," he said. "A lot of people are like 'Oh, you're a jarhead, you've got nothing in there. All you know how to do is fight.'"

(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Tim Gaynor)

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