One of the hardest jobs veterans have in Eastern North Carolina is – finding a job. Hundreds of thousands of Veterans in the state still couldn’t find jobs in 2015, though the unemployment rate fell sharply from the previous year.Government and private sector initiatives have been established to solve the unemployment problem among the veteran population with some success. But as Chris Thomas reports, hiring men and women who served the nation in combat is still a hard sell.
Veterans are going to work in greater numbers throughout North Carolina
Between 2014 and 2015, the unemployment rate among veterans dropped two, full, percentage points to 3.2 percent – lower than the national average.
“It’s a great feeling to know that these companies are doing their part to hire our vets.”
Sgt. Josh Villegas of the North Carolina National Guard.
Sgt. Villegas works with the Guard’s Employment and Education Center’s office in Winterville. He‘s been there since its inception in 2014 and serves as a conduit between employers and soon-to-be civilians.
“At first we started just helping National Guard members, and their spouses and children. But we decided, in collaboration with NC Works and the Governor, pretty much, we’re helping veterans across the board.”
In 2014, North Carolina’s veteran unemployment rate was at 5.2 percent – but still just under the national average.
It put North Carolina in the bottom half among fellow states.
Villegas, a former Marine, came back from his sole tour of Afghanistan in 2013 and remembers how difficult it was for some of his comrades to adjust to civilian life – especially infantrymen.
“The guys coming off of active duty – Army, Marines, infantry guys – it’s harder to market them because that’s all they’ve done is infantry for the past 4-8 years. So, it’s harder for me to bullitize that on a resume, making it employer friendly because that’s all they’ve done.”
Sgt. Villegas said he gets uneasy looks when he reaches out to employers in Pitt County and surrounding counties, asking them if they have room enough for veterans in their ranks.
“It’s disappointing because these employers, they say they’re so veteran friendly – I want to hire vets. But, yet – they need to put their actions to work. Hire my vets. My guys, they struggle, but yet they are excellent workers.”
2 years later, things are looking up for North Carolina veterans. Not only did the unemployment rate drop, but the number of veterans not engaged in the labor force dropped by about 7,000.
According to federal statistics, jobs in manufacturing, professional and business service, and retail trade account for the lion’s share – 32.1 percent – of veteran employees.
“If they don’t have a degree, it’s not a problem for me to get them a security job. I have great security companies that I work with, so I can get them quickly in a security position. Maintenance workers – there’s a lot of maintenance here in Eastern North Carolina, as far as manufacturing, so I try to market them that way. I try to market them that way but those are pretty much the biggest ones I place my infantry guys at.”
Sgt. Villegas says the bond shared by all combat veterans is unique and uses a terms more personal than “colleague” when describing his fellow veterans.
In a way, Sgt. Villegas believes he’s in a family business.
“I don’t know how to describe it, it’s just a family that we’ve gained. It doesn’t matter what branch, you’re still my family, you’re still my veteran – you’re still my brethren.”
Sgt. Villegas says the Guard is just one of many organizations participating in North Carolina for Military Employment (or NC4ME), a partnership between federal, state, and private sector agencies and firms.
According to statistics from NC4ME, the partnership’s efforts have led to 583 job offers for veterans and nearly 1,000 interviews between March 2015 and the end of the year.
NC4ME’s most vocal advocate is Gov. Pat McCrory, and these days, it’s one of the few programs backed by his office receiving bipartisan support.
Rob Schofield is policy director for the left-leaning think tank NC Policy Watch – an organization often critical of McCrory and his administration.
“It’s great! It’s the kind of thing we need. We need more of that, we need public-private partnerships. We need state government to prime the pump, to help people find work despite the fact that we have this national economic recovery, it’s clearly leaving a lot of people behind.”
Unemployment is an especially difficult problem in military-dependent areas of Eastern North Carolina. The North Carolina Department of Commerce reports 8 counties on or east of I-95 that have military bases – including Onslow, Craven, and Wayne – have unemployment rates over the state average.
Mr. Schofield hopes NC4ME is the first of many such initiatives.
“Clearly, Eastern North Carolina is not going to achieve the levels of success and health and economic wellbeing that everybody in that part of the state would like to have merely by the government saying ‘okay, Eastern North Carolina, do your thing, you’re on your own.’ We all recognize that they need help from Raleigh, they need help from Washington and the way to do that is through programs like this and it’s through even bigger and better programs like it.”
It’s one thing to “Thank a Vet,” but it seems veterans desire, and deserve, something more.
Like employment and the dignity that comes with it.
If you’re a veteran who’s unemployed or underemployed, the North Carolina Department of Commerce, through their NC Works division, have a special section on their website and staff at several physical locations.