LINCOLN, Neb. — National Guardsman Jonathan Terry faced a long stint of unemployment when he returned home from serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. He spent more than a year searching for a job with comparable pay to what he earned as a soldier, but the best he could find paid him $10 per hour to be a bouncer at a bar.
Things got a little better when the 30-year-old landed a temporary job in January teaching leadership courses for the military in Lincoln, but that position could end soon due to federal budget cuts.
"I came back from Afghanistan thinking I could get a job and I was completely wrong," Terry said. He's back to square one and says he feels more discouraged than ever.
Veterans have given up their most vital career development years to serve their country, Terry said, so the government should lend support for the transition back into civilian life. That's why he and other young veterans are urging Nebraska lawmakers to pass two bills that would help them get a leg up when applying for government jobs.
The state's overall average veteran unemployment rate in 2011 was 3.9 percent — about the same as the civilian unemployment rate. But Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 2011 showed the unemployment rate for veterans who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan reached 11 percent in Nebraska —— similar to the national average of 10.9 percent in last August.
With the Afghanistan war winding down, more and more veterans will be searching for jobs, said John McNally, deputy director of the Nebraska Department of Veteran's Affairs. If they don't find jobs, McNally said, it's not because they lack skills, but because the economy isn't the best.
"It is not a veteran issue," he said. "It is an employment issue across the board."
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Many employers are cautious to hire veterans returning from war, said Ryan McIntosh, a 24-year-old law student and Nebraska National Guard veteran. Employers worry about another military deployment or fear physiological battle wounds, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, he said.
"The cards are stacked against you in public- and private-sector jobs because you have to miss work for training," he said. "You have huge holes in your employment history, which can be hard to explain to employers."
McNally said veterans need the most help with translating their military service into a civilian resume.
Terry knows this all too well, saying it was a nightmare trying to match his skills and military duties to the job market. Terry used government programs to help him with his resume and went to the job fairs, but said the jobs didn't pay enough.
"It seemed that every business at the job fairs offered jobs for $13 or $14 per hour. I need something that pays more," he said. He has a bachelor's degree in business and an associate's degree in medical science.
The two measures that have reached the Legislature would update Nebraska's veterans' preference policy for state jobs and give disabled vets preference for state contracts.
Since 1969, state law has required government employers to give preference to veterans if they ask for it. It was created to help Vietnam veterans find employment. It also says veterans who pass an exam should receive an extra five percentage points to their score.
The only problem with the law is that many state agencies do not administer tests to job candidates, McIntosh said.
Sen. Dan Watermeier, of Syracuse, said he introduced the preference bill after McIntosh told him there was no clear way to know if veterans are given preference when they apply for a state government job. His measure would update the law to require government employers to hire a veteran when he or she is one of two or more equally qualified candidates and there's no test or point system in place.
Watermeier said it is possible state agencies are already following his proposed procedure, but he wants to make sure the state has an official policy.
"We are trying to make agencies and the public aware of veteran's preference," Watermeier said.
The measure would also require employers to let veterans know whether or not they got the job within 30 days. The spouse of a disabled veteran would also qualify for veterans' preference.
The other bill, sponsored by Sen. Charlie Janssen, would give preference to disabled Nebraska veterans who bid for public contracts.
Sen. Pete Pirsch says Janssen's bill is his priority, and believes the state should help out injured veterans to make sure they lead productive lives.
"I prioritized this bill because soldiers are willing to put their personal safety in jeopardy," Pirsch said. "It seems this is the least we could do to recognize that."
No date has been set to debate either bill. Watermeier said he's asked for his bill to be put on the consent calendar agenda to move it through more quickly. Consent calendar bills can be debated for 15 minutes or less.
The bills are LB588 and LB224.