Erica Uleski fought to save her fellow service members as an Army medic in Iraq, working under brutal conditions to stanch bleeding, save limbs and bring back lives teetering on the edge.
But when she returned to Virginia Beach in 2007 after three tours in Iraq, she found her extensive combat medical experience had little relevance in the civilian health care world, largely because she lacked the required licenses. She was able to leverage her language skills to pivot to another career instead.
“You can tell all the stories you want,” Ms. Uleski said. “But if you don’t have the credentials, you don’t get work.”
In his State of the Union address to Congress last month, President Trump made a significant economic boast that did not garner much attention: the historic decline in veteran unemployment, which now rests around 3 percent.
Like other Americans, veterans have benefited from a roaring economy and a robust labor market. But as a group, they are often hampered by the difficulty of converting skills gained in wars to private-sector jobs, a lack of strong professional networks and a culture of treating veterans as charity cases.
Underemployment is one of the greatest issues faced by returning veterans — and by their spouses, who often lose ground through constant relocations. Veterans are 37 percent more likely to be underemployed than nonveterans, a recent study by LinkedIn found.
“Underemployment with this group is very concerning,” said Sarah Roberts, the company’s head of Military and Veteran Programs.
Unlike students, many of whom choose their majors, a majority of people enlisted in the military are assigned their tasks and points of focus. When they leave, many veterans are eager to shift gears but lack clear pathways to do so.
“About 55 percent of vets in transition want to do something totally different than what they did in the military,” Ms. Roberts said. Officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs, which has put together several programs to help place veterans in jobs, concede this is among the chief obstacles.
Veterans, particularly those without college degrees, are often pushed toward low-skill jobs even though their training and the culture of the military might well translate into other types of positions. A clear pipeline to those jobs, however, does not exist for veterans.
“The employers are saying ‘It’s not our job to train them,’” said Joan Lynch, the chief content and programming officer at WorkingNation, a nonprofit campaign that focuses on labor in the United States. “So whose job is it to train veterans for the work force? The military? No; they teach them to defend our nation. Employers aren’t doing it, either.”
Many jobs require licenses and training for skills that veterans learned in combat, particularly in health care. Many veterans who acquired deep knowledge and specialized emergency response techniques, for example, would have no immediate access to the long credentialing process to become a physician assistant.
Ms. Lynch said she had encountered many returning medics who were unable to immediately translate their skills into jobs — even when they had privately tutored medical residents on skills like suturing — because they lacked a license. At the same time, those extensive experiences may not apply in other, often lower-wage jobs for which they are vastly overqualified.
“These people have about $1 million of training that the government has put into them,” Ms. Lynch said. “But they don’t have one credit toward a professional degree, and they end up being turned down for jobs delivering dry cleaning. It breaks your heart.”
Under the most recent Defense Department budget bill, Congress authorized the military to conduct a pilot program to assess a possible partnership among Special Operations forces, colleges and health care systems in which veterans can earn credit toward a master’s degree in physician assistant studies for their military operational work and medic training.
Dr. David W. Callaway, an emergency physician at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, N.C., started a program in 2015 to teach veterans to translate their military medical training for civilian hospital settings.
His team spearheaded a partnership among Atrium Health, Wake Forest School of Medicine and the Defense Department to create a program that allows Special Operations combat medics to earn master’s degree credit toward a physician assistant license while serving in operational units.
The program relied on private donor funding, even a local high school fund-raiser. Congress has authorized the military to conduct a pilot program to assess scaling the partnership among Special Operations forces, colleges and health care systems.
State governments, however, are best equipped to take on this issue, experts say.
“We need to reform the occupational licensing laws,” said Rebecca Burgess, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. “This could help veterans and military spouses whose unemployment rates have skyrocketed.”
Indeed, the unemployment rate for military spouses is 24 percent, in large part because of frequent relocations and an inability to transfer occupational licenses from state to state. Last year, Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona signed a bill to recognize out-of-state licenses in many areas to permit workers to become licensed in Arizona without additional training or education.
Veterans leave the military with educational benefits coveted by most American high school students. In addition to the G.I. Bill, which provides 36 months of tuition payments and housing allowances, veterans have many other programs to draw on, such as an additional nine months of subsidized education for those pursuing STEM-related degrees and extensive new transition training programs.
“Because of all these programs, veterans are better equipped to reach the American dream than their nonveteran counterparts,” said Margarita Devlin, the principal deputy under secretary for benefits at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
But there are often complications, especially for those who have served for many years and now have families to support.
“Some people think if you have the G.I. Bill, you should be in school full time,” said William Hubbard, the chief of staff for Student Veterans of America, an advocacy group. “That is true if you are a 25-year-old single person with no obligations. But most people have families, work full time and are nontraditional students.”
Many veterans also lack strong networks outside their own community to help them navigate the work force.
Ms. Roberts of LinkedIn looked at veteran networks that were composed of about 28 percent other veterans and compared them with nonveteran networks, which were made up of less than 2 percent veterans.
“About 70 percent of job seekers find employment through a referral or someone in their network,” she said. “So trying to be intentional about connecting with people outside their networks is important.”
Certain industries have discovered a set of veterans’ skills that transfer from across service branches, such as the defense and security sectors; various technology companies are also catching on.
Executives at Parsable, a start-up that tried to transition industrial workers from paper to technology, aims to hire 10 percent of its staff from the veteran pool; they currently have about 6 percent, said Lawrence Whittle, the company’s chief executive.
“From our perspective, we made it a strategy, and they proved to be very talented and applicable to our business,” he said. “The tax incentives are there, the moral incentives are still there, but in the tech space, those are not really a big influence because of the supply and demand issues.”
For many years, policies and public campaigns meant to increase veteran employment focused on trying to appeal to a mix of patriotism and pity for a group that was believed to be damaged by conflict and set back by years out of the civilian work force, said Mr. Hubbard and several other experts. Tax incentives also helped.
“For a long time, fund-raising was centered around the idea that this is a struggling population,” Mr. Hubbard said.
“There were a lot of organizations that were able to use the opportunity to say that veterans are broken or damaged or need our support,” he said. “But this is actually counterproductive because the country sees the veterans in that image.” This, he said, makes some employers reluctant to hire them.
Other experts agreed, saying this often led veterans to gravitate toward jobs that were easily secured but below their skill and experience levels.
“There used to be this corporate concept that ‘We are going to hire veterans,’” said Ms. Lynch of WorkingNation. “What that did in reality is turn hiring vets into a charity case, and their retention rate was very low.”
She said the veterans and private-sector cultures both needed to adjust. “Good companies are getting smart about the training,” she said.
Ms. Lynch said that, in discussions with veterans and private-sector managers, a theme had emerged.
“We have a system in place where we have boot camp where you spend three months preparing someone in a certain environment, and then they come out,” she said, reflecting on those conversations. “Why don’t we have a reboot camp to do the opposite and build them back into the workplace?’”