While on active duty in Iraq, Matthew Ellersick started job hunting online, planning his transition to civilian life.
Since returning from a six-month deployment in February, the Army National Guard intelligence analyst, who has a master's degree in marketing, has traveled a circuit of job fairs from Tampa, Fla., to Philadelphia with no luck.
"When I came back, the economy was a lot worse than when I left," said Ellersick during a recent job fair in Baltimore, a chance to come face-to-face with employers after many companies he contacted had directed him to apply online. "You feel like they're blowing you off. The only ones who are not picky are the military."
Young, unemployed veterans who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan face even lower odds of finding jobs in this economy than their civilian counterparts, according to recent government statistics. The jobless rate hit 21 percent last year for the youngest veterans, who are 18 to 24 years old, according to a U.S. Department of Labor report released last month. That's compared to 16.6 percent of nonveterans in the same age range.
Returning veterans have historically faced challenges. They can be at a disadvantage if they find their military training doesn't easily translate into civilian skills, or if they had delayed the pursuit of a four-year degree to enter the military, said Joseph Sharpe, director of the economic division for the American Legion in Washington. Grueling deployment schedules also can be an impediment.
These challenges only become more pronounced in a tight job market.
The annual unemployment rate for the youngest group of veterans from conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan has been increasing during the past three years, from 12 percent in 2007, to 14 percent in 2008 to 21 percent last year, Labor Department reports show. That's compared to an overall unemployment rate of 9.7 percent nationally.
As with nonveterans, joblessness among veterans varies considerably with age, with 18- to 24-year-olds typically experiencing a much higher unemployment rate than older workers. For veterans ages 25 to 34, the unemployment rate last year was 11 percent compared to 9.8 percent for those who haven't served in the military. Rates among older workers are even lower.
"There are more difficulties now because of the bad economy, the number of deployments and the fact that you really need to have a degree," or trade school certification, Sharpe said. "You are seeing more and more people laid off, and also you are seeing the number of deployments increasing, which means that for a lot of individuals it's difficult for them to maintain employment when they are constantly being deployed."
Job market experts say, too, that some companies are reluctant to hire reservists or National Guard members, fearing the impact that a deployed employee, and the cost of having to hold open that job position, will have on their business in an already tough economy.
Though it's illegal to turn a job applicant down based on a reserve or National Guard status, "small businesses particularly can ill-afford to lose someone if they don't have other people to fill in," said John Challenger, principal and chief executive of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a global outplacement firm.
Building the right resume also can be a challenge. Even if trained in a particular trade through the military, many states require retraining or recertification according to that state's standards. That can apply to plumbing, electrical work or welding, for instance. And even those with a top-secret miliary clearance might have to reapply for clearance and wait for months if they want to work in a civilian job at the Department of Homeland Security, for example.
Some just give up looking for work, and some volunteer for extra duty if they're still in the reserves or National Guard.
"We find young people taking three or four part-time jobs and others have stopped looking for work and try to go on as many deployments as possible," Sharpe said.
And some veterans are confronting personal obstacles.
"There is an added problem of how to integrate these people who served in the military back into the work force," Challenger said. "Often these individuals come back with significant experiences that are damaging, in terms of emotional issues and the culture shock, and finding their way back in. But also in the workplace, it's a matter of understanding how to utilize them."
Challenger said veterans shouldn't forget about the power of networking.
"Networking is so much based on relationships and bond," he said. "There's a tight bond among people who've been in the military."
Ellersick, 31, who was a financial adviser before being deployed to Iraq, said his military experience has made him reluctant to return to a sales job.