Clark Hill recalls being a National Guardsman in Arizona when he was passed over for a management promotion because he wouldnt leave the military.
Now hes a manager at Chris Reeve Knives in Boise, and he tries to fight what military experts say is a troubling trend: chronic unemployment among Guard members.
They have a great work ethic, Hill said. I wish more employers would see the positive benefits over the drawbacks.
Across the country, an estimated 20 percent of returning National Guard soldiers and airmen are without jobs, former National Guard Bureau Chief Gen. Craig R. McKinley told Congress earlier this year. That is twice the rate for all military veterans who have served since September 2001.
Idaho doesnt track unemployment among Guard members, said Tim Marsano, spokesman for the Idaho National Guard, but officials know its a problem.
Weve been working really hard to line potential Idaho employers up with our soldiers, Marsano said. Statewide programs include the Hire One Vet Hire One Hero campaign launched last year to match members with employers.
In general, some employers are reluctant to hire Guard members because, unlike other veterans joining the civilian workforce, they can be called up again.
Federal law protects Guard members, but discrimination can be hard to prove.
And some service members have returned from deployments to find their former employers out of business or their positions axed. The law generally requires employers to take them back, but not if they would have been let go regardless of their Guard situation.
A person cannot run a company with their most valued asset, their human capital, being taken away for 12 to 18 months at a time, said Ted Daywalt, president of vetjobs.com, one of the largest Internet job sites for veterans.
PROS AND CONS
No longer just weekend warriors, the nations more than 1 million National Guard and reserve members have been transformed by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan into frontline forces. Even as the wars wind down, the troops are being tapped for peacekeeping duties in Africa, Europe and elsewhere. Those in the Guard also have state obligations and can be called to respond to fires, flood or other emergencies.
Hill works to accommodate his military employees by allowing time off for training and other obligations. But he acknowledges that it has its drawbacks.
I do have to consider how much of my workforce is in the National Guard because there always is that What if? he said. Its always in the back of our head that, Sure, we could lose these guys.
Of the knifemakers 31 employees, eight are in the National Guard or reserves. Hill said those workers embody the companys core values: integrity, excellence and hard work. The military connection runs deep in the company one of its high-end knives is made exclusively for Green Berets.
Production assistant Cody Fyfe, 33, started at Chris Reeve Knives in April after nearly seven months of unemployment. The guardsman with the 116th Brigade returned home in September after his second tour in Iraq. He said Hill was able to accommodate a recent 30-day training session in Utah that was part of Fyfes duties.
It wasnt easy, but we worked around it, Hill said.
Jared Hight, 31, also a member of the 116th, said he applied several places before being hired by Chris Reeve in March, where he works as a sharpener.
MILITARY VS. CIVILIAN JOBS
Unemployment is highest among the youngest of veterans. Like their active-duty counterparts, many in the Guard enlist out of high school and have little or no work experience before they deploy. The demands on the military have been so high, some have not needed to look for civilian jobs in years.
When Sgt. 1st Class Edward Duenas got back to California from Iraq in 2009, many openings existed for Guard and reserve members to step in for departing active-duty soldiers. The 38-year-old father of two said he found work quickly in Washington state preparing other soldiers to deploy until he, too, was mobilized to go to Afghanistan with the 756th.
But he says there are fewer opportunities like that now. He has broadened his search to include law enforcement and security jobs. I get call-backs, but its very competitive, he said.
Although the job market is improving, advocates for veterans fear that employment difficulties will get worse as the U.S. completes its drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Pentagon estimates that as many as 1 million service members will enter the civilian workforce in the next five years.
EFFECTS ON THE MILITARY?
Guard leadership says unemployment is becoming a force-readiness issue.
Soldiers cant show up if they dont have a car, if they dont have gas, said Maj. Ty Shepard, who heads a state employment in the California National Guard.
Daywalt said the problem of unemployment among military veterans often is exaggerated. The unemployment rate for veterans last month was 6.6 percent compared to 7.4 in the overall workforce.
As a class, the veterans have the lowest unemployment rate of all the classes of people tracked by the Department of Labor, Daywalt said. But if youre staying with the National Guard and Reserve, youre going to have problems.
The Obama administration has tried to help reduce the unemployment rate for recent veterans, and it has gone from 15 percent nearly two years ago to 10 percent in November, thanks in part to online tools to help returning troops find jobs. The president also has worked with employers to increase recruitment and retention and signed into law tax credits for businesses that hire veterans.
Meghann M. Cuniff: 377-6418