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Veterans face hurdles getting local jobs

San Diego County has become the nation’s top destination for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, but it can still be a tough place for them to find a job, according to a report by the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce this week.

Nationwide, nearly 30 percent of veterans under the age of 25 were unemployed in 2011, compared to 18 percent for civilians that age, the report noted.

Although those numbers have likely improved sharply over the past year, they provide a glimpse at the hurdles young veterans face when they re-enter the job market. The jobless rate for the youngest veterans is typically nearly twice as high as for their civilian peers.

Locally, the job search may grow tougher this year, as thousands more veterans come to San Diego during the wind-down of the war in Afghanistan. Some projections are that roughly half of the personnel based in the county who are discharged in the county will elect to stay here once they leave the service.

“All indicators are that we are going to see more and more of these young people coming back, at greater numbers than anywhere else,” said Bill Holman, the chamber’s vice president of external affairs.

But with unemployment still hovering at around 8 percent — and far higher for younger workers — the returnees face stiff competition for jobs.

During a job search last month, for instance, Phil Blair, co-owner of the San Diego operations of the Manpower (NYSE: MAN) employment agency, was deluged with applications when he sought veterans to fill 20 IT positions at Qualcomm (Nasdaq: QCOM).

“On the first day, we got 36 resumes, including a number of very qualified people,” he said. “And then we got around the same number of resumes the next day and then the day after that and so on. We stopped counting when we got up to 580.”

Currently, there are 241,000 veterans in San Diego County, comprising 13 percent of the population. That’s the third-highest total in the United States, after Los Angeles (328,000) and Phoenix (276,000). The biggest share of veterans comes from the Vietnam era. But the county also has 29,000 post-9/11 veterans: the highest total in the country. And with the wind-down in Afghanistan, thousands more are expected.

These relatively young veterans often have a problem readjusting to life at home after they’re discharged.

“You can’t just get off a ship or climb out of a tank and walk into a civilian job,” Blair said. “You need a lot of hand-holding to take your military skills and translate them to civilian life.”

But one problem is that job skills in the military and the civilian world don’t always match up. As an example, Blair cited the case of a young veteran whose resume listed “sniper” under the category of most recent work experience.

“How is that sharp young man going to get a job anywhere when he’s describing himself as a sniper?” Blair asked. Blair helped the veteran reshape the resume to focus on less deadly attributes, such as dependability, precision and attention to detail.

In addition, veterans’ resumes are often loaded with obtuse military jargon.

“If you’re an employer who gets one of those resumes, you say to yourself, ‘I don’t understand a word of this,’ and then you toss it into the garbage because you have a stack of resumes and don’t have time to ask everyone what they meant to say,” Blair said.

The chamber’s report notes that a number of local support groups help veterans with job searches, resumes and the interview process. But it added that businesses can also help by training their hiring personnel how to deal with veterans, which can qualify companies for up to $4,800 in federal tax benefits as well as some state benefits.

The good news is that most veterans eventually outperform the civilian market in terms of pay, education and employment, according to the chamber report. That’s particularly true in San Diego, where they are aided by a network of veteran-owned establishments, representing 13.5 percent of local businesses.

With federal help, many of them are able to get better educations than their civilian peers.

In San Diego County, 43 percent of veterans have attended some amount of college without getting a bachelor’s degree, compared to 33 percent in the county’s overall population and 36 percent among veterans nationally, the chamber report said. And 35 percent of local veterans have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 34 percent in the overall population and 29 percent of veterans nationwide.

The education helps improve the veterans’ hiring and salary prospects, especially once they’re out of their 20s. In 2011, San Diego veterans between the ages of 35 and 54 had a jobless rate of 8.2 percent, compared to 9 percent for civilians.

"San Diego has much to be proud of … as a place where veterans enjoy comparatively strong employment and opportunity to succeed economically,” the report said. But it added that the community had to “remain vigilant” about maintaining and expanding its job opportunities, especially for the youngest veterans.

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