Like many Americans, Forest Syruws joined the military out of high school. An infantryman in the United States Army, Syruws was confident that, when his service ended, he would seamlessly transition into civilian life.
“I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to do,” Syruws said. “I thought I’d be making the big bucks. It didn’t work out that well.”
Twenty-four, unemployed, without a college degree and rehabilitating a traumatic brain injury at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Boise, Syruws said he applied for hundreds of jobs without receiving an offer.
He was at risk of falling through the cracks.
The good news is that the number of out-of-work U.S. veterans has fallen steadily over the past two decades. The August 2018 veterans unemployment rate was 3.8 percent nationally and 3.6 percent in Idaho.
The bad news is that nearly 400,000 U.S. vets remain unemployed and many more are underemployed. According to Call of Duty Endowment, a nonprofit that helps veterans find jobs, nearly a third of those who served their country are working jobs for which they are overqualified and, as a result, underpaid.
When Syruws finally received an offer, the job paid $10 an hour. It was a bitter pill to swallow for a man who took such great pride in the important work he did while in the Army.
Syruws eventually landed on his feet, finding a job in a security company and then a career with the Idaho National Guard.
That’s how he became involved in a movement that is determined to prepare veterans for the outside world and, conversely, make sure the outside world is prepared for them.
‘A natural fit’
Idaho National Laboratory is a soft landing spot for many military veterans.
Art Clark, a U.S. Navy veteran who served two tours in Vietnam, became a senior member of INL leadership, earning an entry in the Congressional record when he retired in 2016.
Kyle Allbritten’s Navy experience left him well prepared to implement INL’s work management system, and ensure that maintenance and operations tasks are carefully planned and reviewed.
In 2003, Russell Adams was deployed during Operation Iraqi Freedom as a chaplain’s assistant in the U.S. Army. A year later, he began his INL career as a security police officer, eventually becoming a nuclear facility operator.
Veterans, said INL’s senior technical recruiter, Meg Duba, often have a leg up at the laboratory. Many already possess security clearances that civilians often need 18 months to attain. Veterans also tend to approach employment with realistic ideas of what it takes to succeed.
“They are used to starting from the bottom and working their way up,” Duba said.
INL faces a looming workforce shortage. Roughly 30 percent of the laboratory’s employees are at least 50 years of age and will soon be contemplating retirement. At the same time, INL’s clean energy and national security missions are growing.
Other companies in need of a technologically skilled workforce face the same issues. In 2017 alone, Idaho saw 7,000 science, technology, engineering and mathematics jobs go unfilled, according to the STEM Action Center.
So, last fall, INL’s program manager for economic and workforce development, Stephanie Cook, asked Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo’s office how the laboratory, and other companies, could get more veterans to apply for open positions.
That call, said Robert Feliciano, Idaho Department of Labor Local Veterans Employment representative, “sparked a big initiative without INL even knowing it was lit.”
Agencies at the local, state and federal levels began thinking about how they could work together to serve veterans and Idaho employers. Legislation was drafted and passed that allows veterans to go before a state board that authorizes licenses, certifications and registrations to show they’ve already proven their qualifications in the military.
Polling was conducted among those serving at Gowen Field Idaho Air National Guard and Mountain Home Force Base to find out how many departing service members want to remain in Idaho, and how many more would be willing to stick around if they had a good job.
Connie Stopher, executive director of the Magic Valley-based Southern Idaho Economic Development Organization (SIEDO) applied for and received a $5,000 technology-based economic development grant from INL.
The grant led to a free “Hiring our Heroes” seminar this summer, to “educate Magic Valley employers on how to better understand veterans’ skills and how those might apply to their industry and company, as well as how employers can help veterans transition to civilian life.”
“It seemed like a natural fit,” Stopher said.
The grant helps SIEDO and the state Labor Department hold monthly trainings at Mountain Home Air Force Base. In September, SIEDO and INL also brought a number of potential employers to Gowen Field in Boise for another “Hiring our Heroes” event.
More than 50 potential employers interacted with veterans and service members at the Magic Valley and Gowen Field events.
“We have an obligation to see that veterans who have contributed to our national defense feel fully prepared to return home to the community and provide for their families after service,” Crapo said. “Helping them bridge the gap to civilian life will not only help them achieve their goals, but will also benefit local economies and businesses.”
Bridging the knowledge gap
Before she began recruiting employees for INL, Duba was an active participant in the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) at Scott Air Force Base near St. Louis, conducting mock job interviews and résumé-writing workshops.
TAP is designed to help military members prepare for the next step, learning how to create a résumé, the do’s and don’ts of interviewing for a job, and tips about body language and interaction with potential co-workers.
Many service members, Duba said, are completely unprepared for the often harsh realities of job seeking.
“Especially if they went into the service straight out of high school,” Duba said. “Many have never interviewed for a job.”
Stopher said the monthly meetings at Mountain Home Air Force Base are intended to help transitioning veterans enhance those skills.
But the learning curve is not all on one side. Feliciano, himself a veteran, makes it a point to educate potential employers about how they can encourage veterans to apply for job openings.
The idea, Feliciano said, is to encourage companies to make the jump from “vet friendly” to “vet ready.”
For example, Feliciano asks businesses to consider dropping a requirement that job applicants have a bachelor’s degree. A veteran who joined the military out of high school may possess a unique set of skills, training and certifications, but might not have had the time or opportunity to pursue a four-year college degree.
“A vet often will have a plethora of skills,” Feliciano said.
Feliciano urges businesses to encourage not just “veterans” to apply for openings, but also “servicemen” and “servicewomen” because sometimes those who served but did not see combat don’t think of themselves as vets.
Finally, there is one more factor employers must understand. Some vets, such as Syruws, return from duty physically injured or suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Syruws’ struggles to find work were exacerbated by his need to do physical rehabilitation every other day, and he understands that it can be difficult for an employer to work around this kind of schedule.
“I think it is a hard understanding,” he said.
A community that cares
Americans do a lot to celebrate those who served their country in the Armed Forces. We cheer veterans at Fourth of July parades, thank them at the airport and pick up the check when we see a service member dining out.
But transitioning veterans to good careers following their service has been a challenge.
Stopher said SIEDO plans to continue its focus on veteran hiring by continuing to hold hiring seminars and lobbying economic development organizations around Idaho to join this effort.
“Every month, more service members are making the transition out of the military,” Stopher said. “And every month, more employers have job openings.”
INL also is reaching out, and working to educate Idahoans about the variety of openings at the laboratory. That INL is the nation’s lead nuclear energy research and development laboratory is known throughout the state. What’s not widely understood is that INL also is a world leader in cybersecurity, and Idaho’s sixth-largest private employer works extensively in electric vehicle battery research, development of biofuels, power grid resiliency, emergency response training, and so much more.
Veterans, with their wide array of skills and experiences, fit in well at INL, said Laboratory Director Mark Peters.
“Veterans for generations have played key roles in INL’s clean energy and national security work,” Peters said. “We not only encourage the hiring of service members at INL, but are proud to be part of a coalition that is helping those who served our nation find meaningful employment in a number of fields across Idaho.”
For Syruws, a West Virginia native who moved to Idaho in 2008, it’s nice to know his adopted state not only appreciates military service, but also that its citizens are concerned about what happens to veterans once the uniform comes off.
“It’s comforting,” he said. “This community does care about veterans and service members.”
Posted Nov. 12, 2018
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the Idaho Falls Post Register on Nov. 11, 2018.