On the Jobs Front, Reservists Fight to Take the Lead

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A soldier from the Army Reserve 379th Chemical Company walks with his family following a welcome-home ceremony after the unit's year-long deployment to Kuwait.

During my first summer as an Army officer I took a Combat Lifesaver course at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Other than a fellow new lieutenant–like me, a recent ROTC graduate–the class consisted of a company of artillerymen from the South Carolina National Guard. The unit had been mobilized and turned in its big guns for small unit training, preparing for a year running convoys between Kuwait and Baghdad.

Having little exposure to the majority of the Army, especially reservists, one of my first questions to the soldiers was what were they leaving behind? I understood that the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) requires employers to reemploy reservists when they’re finished with their deployments, but I wondered whether the law worked. Almost to a man, the South Carolina artillerymen (at least those who had jobs before the deployment) said that they didn’t worry about having a job when they returned home.

But what about today’s stagnant economy? In July, the unemployment rate among veterans fell to 6.9%, the lowest rate in three years. But the Department of Labor only tracks unemployment for veterans as a whole; it does not maintain separate statistics for reservists returning from deployments.

Anecdotal evidence from my years in the Army and people I’ve spoken with recently suggests that USERRA is very effective; however, activations and deployments have caused employment problems in the reserve ranks. According to a 2011 paper by the RAND Corporation, more than 20% of reservists reported employment problems related to deployments.

The Army Reserve leadership recognized that reservists would benefit, not just from the guarantee of a job, but from the right job with an employer who understands the commitments reservists have with training as well as deployments. The Employer Partnership Office of the Armed Forces pairs reservists with companies looking to hire them, and helps the soldiers translate their military experience into civilian terms. “They have a person they can talk to,” says Erin Thede, director of the Employment Partnership Program. “That person knows all of the employers in that geographic areas and can reach out to them and say, ‘I have this soldier. Here are his qualifications. He may be a good fit.’”

The partnership program has targeted reservists in their areas, spreading support managers throughout 20 geographic areas across the U.S. In recent years, they have learned that they’re most effective if they reach the units at their demobilization sites, places like Fort Dix and Camp Shelby, Mississippi. By working with units early in their redeployment process, partnership offices have found they’re much more effective in placing reservists with jobs that fit.

Specialist Timothy Thomas, a Military Police soldier who served a year-long deployment in Iraq, returned in 2011 and couldn’t find a job in Bakersfield, California. Through the partnership, he landed a job with a drilling company that he says works closely with him to allow him to continue to serve. “My company works hand in hand with my unit,” Thomas says. “Whenever I have drills, I get the days off from work to be able to come and do my reserve time. There’s no complaints on either part.”

The goal for the Army Reserves and the employment partnership is to place Reserve soldiers in jobs with that kind of understanding. “They have a commitment to our nation,” explains Sgt. Maj. James Lambert, the executive to the sergeant major of the Army Reserve Command. “Ultimately, the partners that we have recognize the true value that by having that military training and those military experiences. It’s going to be far more beneficial to my organization.”

Unlike the National Guard, which consists mainly of combat units, the federal Army Reserve is made up of support units: Military Police, construction Engineers and Intelligence. Those support units will remain in Afghanistan until the bitter end, even after the end of “combat operations.” So the Reserves will have to prepare for rounds of deployments to see us through that time, and when the soldiers come home, they’re planning on targeting them for jobs as early as possible. They hope that with the right program in place, they can take care of that last round of veterans once they return home.