Military puts own people on the street Victims of budget cuts unable to find good civilian jobs.

November 18, 1991|By Knight-Ridder

Kimberly Miller was a sergeant who hadn't been promoted after 10 years in the Air Force. A decade ago, she might have been given more time to try.

But in today's Air Force, there's little room for compromise. Or for Kimberly Miller. She has been told to go.

Miller, 31, is lucky -- she chose to stay home with her children near Fresno, Calif., so she's not seeking a job. But thousands of others, in all branches of a shrinking military, are being forced out at a time when civilian job prospects are grim.

For those without college degrees or specific technical skills, years of military training won't mean much, officials say.

"We anticipate there are some folks out there who are going to have problems, particularly those who come out of combat arms," says Mack McKinney of the Non-Commissioned Officers Association, a non-profit group that is an advocate for the military's 1.3 million senior enlisted personnel.

"How many people want to hire cannon cockers?" McKinney asks.

By 1995, the Navy will have cut 77,000 sailors. The Marines will trim 28,000 troops, the Air Force 170,000, and the Army 245,000. All this is in addition to the 300,000 people, including retirees, who leave the military each year.

The Pentagon hopes attrition and voluntary leaves will constitute FTC most of the cuts. But attrition won't do it all.

"There's no way I can cut the defense budget without cutting personnel," Defense Secretary Richard Cheney says. "I wish I didn't have to do it, but I have no choice."

Two weeks ago, the secretary of the Army signed an order discharging 700 first lieutenants, among them 270 Persian Gulf War veterans, Cheney says. They were given 90 days.

The reduction in forces is different from those that came after World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam. As Cheney put it: "There isn't anybody serving in the military today who didn't ask to be there."

Some of those who volunteered for duty expected to enjoy long careers in the service. So, with the cuts are coming hard questions, but few answers, about how well the military prepares people for jobs outside.

Department of Defense has done little to study the issue beyond the particular problems of Vietnam veterans.

One small survey conducted at Fort Dix, N.J., last year by base education director Chuck Adimaro questioned 400 departing soldiers. Of the 200 who responded to the follow-up questionnaire, 70 percent were employed six months later. But only 17 percent of those soldiers said they liked their jobs. Most -- 77 percent -- said they were earning $15,000 or less despite their years of military service.

Military officials like to talk about the "marketability" of former service men and women -- their discipline, loyalty, confidence under stress, and presumably drug-free status.

"But those are traits, not skills," Adimaro says. "All those honorable traits aren't going to generate revenue."

Former Master Sgt. Jack Vance of Fayetteville, N.C., was supposed to retire from the Air Force in August. Instead, he was told to pack his bags and head out in February, a few months shy of his 26th anniversary. He would still receive retirement benefits, but the early move shrank his pension by $220 a month.

Vance, 45, has found that employers don't care about his military experience. They want to see a college degree. So after searching for months without success, he's going

back to school.

"I just got tired of people saying, if you had a degree we'd hire you tomorrow," he says.

Nearly 98 percent of enlisted people have high school degrees or the equivalent. But fewer than 3 percent have college degrees. And although they can use the GI bill to pursue higher education, the Veterans Administration reports that only a minority of veterans do so.

By contrast, all active-duty officers must be college graduates. They also gain management experience from their years in the service.

Many officers therefore assume that landing civilian jobs will be easier than for their enlisted counterparts. But the transition can still be tough, says Douglas Carter, placement director for the Retired Officers Association.

Many officers have no idea how to write a resume, how to describe their skills in non-military jargon or how to network effectively, he says. Worse, employers often assume that officers are strangers to cost-efficiency and have been discouraged from creative thinking.

"Just because you're successful in the military, that's not an insurance policy that you're going to be successful in the private sector," Carter says.

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