When Lance Calloway got out of the Marine Corps in 2015, he planned to enroll in graduate school and find a job that would combine the business management skills he'd learned in college with his four years of experience in an artillery unit.
"I was thinking it was going to be very easy to slip back into the civilian workforce, and there'd be plenty of jobs waiting for me and people would want to snatch me up," said Calloway, 30. So while he studied for the entrance exam and waited to hear back from hiring managers about potential job opportunities, he took a job working for tips as an Outback Steakhouse bartender.
He didn't expect to be there for a year and a half, eventually feeling like he'd lost all purpose.
"I was used to being in positions in higher authority. Even as a second lieutenant, I managed more commodities and people than the guy I called boss at that time," he said.
Calloway's experience isn't unique. Despite a record-low annual unemployment rate of 5.1 percent for post-9/11 veterans in 2016 and a consistent drop from 12.1 percent since 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, experts say the data can paint a misleading picture of veterans in the job market – many of whom, like Calloway, struggle with being underemployed.
The Call of Duty Endowment, which funds 10 nonprofit organizations that help to prepare veterans for the civilian job market, has seen a spike in the number of veterans seeking job placement services, said the endowment's executive director Dan Goldenberg. In 2016, more than 27,000 veterans were getting help from grantees – a 23 percent growth over 2015.
"The biggest thing we see is this surge in 'Hey, yeah, I have a job. I'm just not getting by. I'm working two jobs and I'm about to get evicted from my apartment,'" said Goldenberg, a Navy veteran.
Post-9/11 veterans, who have historically higher unemployment rates than the national average and veterans overall, represent the overwhelming majority seeking personalized counseling at the Call of Duty Endowment's partner organizations, Goldenberg said. One of them was Calloway, who began meeting with Hire Heroes USA Veteran Transition Specialist Martin Ramirez last year.
Besides sending him basic reminders to brush his teeth or look in the mirror before a job interview, Hire Heroes USA helped Calloway realize that he wasn't accurately communicating the skills he developed in the Marines and, later, as a captain in the Reserves, on his resume, he said. In September, Ramirez helped him land a position as a special projects coordinator at H&K International in Dallas, where he now uses his military-learned operations management skills on a daily basis.
A 2016 report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Hiring Our Heroes program, a separate organization from Hire Heroes USA, found that veterans were ranked third on employers' list for priority recruitment, behind women and candidates with advanced degrees. Ramirez pointed to recent veteran hiring initiatives by Starbucks, Walmart, Goodyear, Amazon and other major companies as contributing to the falling veteran unemployment rate, as well as better overall communication and outreach between veterans and employers. But he's not ready to call it a definite win.
"That's great and all, and that's a very, very noble initiative," Ramirez said specifically of Starbucks' campaign to hire 10,000 veterans and military spouses by 2018. "When it comes down to it they do hire them. Is it fulfilling and something that utilizes (veterans') experience and their wealth of knowledge? Sometimes it's not."
Hiring Our Heroes President Eric Eversole said that while the federal figures are consistent with what he’s seen overall, the organization’s report found that 44 percent of veterans left their first job out of the military within the first year, with many saying they left for better opportunities.
"I don’t see as many vets who are just quote unquote unemployed that we did four or five years ago, but what I am seeing – an increase year over year the number of veterans attending our events," he said.
From a business perspective, veterans have leadership skills and other tremendous assets going for them, Eversole said, but they’ve not necessarily been trained in how to translate those skills into the job market.
"A lot of these young service members, they don’t know what they don’t know about corporate America," Eversole said.
That’s one reason that Hiring Our Heroes, as well as Call of Duty Endowment organizations, have shifted their tactics to start targeting active duty service members through hiring events, industry and skills training before they transition out of the military.
"It’s an example of how we’ve changed," said Eversole. "Not just finding a person a job, but finding the right job."