Veterans are having an exceedingly hard time finding jobs after leaving the military, said Arthur DeGroat, director of military affairs at K-State.
“National statistical data indicates that post-9/11 veterans and their families leaving military service to rejoin the public are facing the most difficult conditions of any generation of war veterans, including post-Vietnam, in our nation’s history,” DeGroat said. “Uncertainty and stress from unemployment, under-employment, a lack of readiness for college, spouse and child transitions, residual health issues, including the psychological long-term costs of war and joining a civil community for the first time as adults are but a few of these simultaneous obstacles.”
DeGroat has immersed himself in research about veterans leaving both military service and Fort Riley to reenter jobs in the surrounding communities.
“They all believe their transition to employment is just translating what they know and can do from the military into a civilian context on a resume and that they’ll be quickly embraced by an employer,” DeGroat said. But in many cases he said he has found that veterans have a hard time understanding the competitive nature of the civilian workforce.
There are organizations that work with soldiers, such as the Sea of Goodwill, to help with job fairs and small business loans. However, DeGroat said this also leads to the bigger cyclical problem of false employment hopes because they “lead soldiers to believe there is this enormous opportunity when they’re not immediately getting jobs in the workforce.”
There is also a lack of assistance programs in areas where they are needed, like teaching how to dress for an interview, who makes good references and what makes a person a competitive applicant.
“Soldiers have to pay a reentry cost to enter civilian society which can include going back to school, taking positions in different fields than (they worked in) in the military, learning new skills, working for a lot less compensation, taking pay cuts and not having the job security that comes with the military,” DeGroat said.
He is also working to help veterans in the “multi-dimensional transition” of how to buy and own a home, manage finances without military incentives, how to work with public schools not on a military base and anything else outside the realm of the military’s institutionalized ways.
“It is a very complicated transition, because in many cases they don’t have the life skills or experience to be independent in a non-institutionalized world,” he said.
Although this is a chaotic time for many who are finishing their service, it’s also an opportunity for the community to step up and work with former soldiers.
“We’re seeing a disproportionate number of people who are leaving Fort Riley and staying here and around Manhattan because of the city’s prime location with the university, quality of life and friendly residential neighborhoods,” DeGroat said.
DeGroat stressed the “huge opportunity for the growing workforce and community people” who already live here.
“We’re sitting on a goldmine of really loyal people with amazing abilities,” he said. “Manhattan is one of the finest military-inclusive communities in the country; now is not the time to rest on the success of what we’ve created.”
DeGroat and Fort Riley’s incoming commanding officer, Maj. Gen. Paul E. Funk, who fought in combat together, have been friends for more than 30 years and have been working together to partner with K-State and the community to make the transition easier on soldiers.
“It is going to take our level of trust to address a situation as complicated as this one and to not undervalue our resources,” DeGroat said.
Having a soldier who is unemployed means the military is paying their unemployment and taking dollars away from active-duty soldiers, so it affects both the social and economic structure of the community.
“Funk and I have had numerous conversations about how we have the right conditions to make his work,” he said. “If we can make it work, we could be an example for other cities.”
DeGroat said he hopes to assemble various educational approaches to meet the challenges and obstacles the military is facing by working with other successful transitional civilians; helping with career and employment placement so veterans understand the workforce; and having business owners come and speak to job seekers so they understand what they’re looking for and why they’re not getting called back on applications.
DeGroat stressed that there are “2.4 million veterans from our generation, and if we don’t get it right that, that will make for a lot of displaced people.”
“If anything, it will help them understand why they’re going through what they’re going through and give them hope and resilience to keep persevering,” he said. “Eventually they will get a job and land on both feet in a new world.”