Slone shows a miniature mixed-media installation she has been working on. She said she hopes her art creates more civilian understanding about veterans' experiences.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
July 2012-July 2013 jobless rate comparison
Erica Slone served in Qatar, Kuwait and Iraq for six years as an airbase security officer and prison guard. When she came back to the U.S. in 2008, her dream was to be an artist.
“I realized it was not going to be easy,” the 31-year-old admitted.
Five years later, after earning a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Ohio State University on a federal grant for veterans, Slone is living in a friend’s basement in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood.
She has curated exhibits with the National Veterans Art Museum in Chicago and works to bring artists together with veterans, but this is not for pay.
“My savings are depleted,” Slone said. “I’m a female veteran, I’m broke (and) looking for a job.” She occasionally tends bar to earn pocket change.
The U.S. unemployment rate for female veterans declined to 6.6 percent in July from 7.3 percent a year ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s below the national jobless rate of 7.4 percent, but is above the 6.4 percent rate for male veterans. It also masks the struggles facing women who have served actively in the military.
“The overall trend is in the right direction, and that’s because there are a lot of things going right,” said Erica Borggren, director of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs since 2011. “But I think that we should start with the acknowledgment, probably, that there’s a long way to go.”
National attention to the issue of veterans’ unemployment has helped nudge the numbers in the right direction, said Borggren, formerly an aide to Gen. David Patraeus in the Middle East, as have initiatives such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Hiring Our Heroes.
Hiring Our Heroes held a career fair for veterans at Union Station in Chicago in early July, partnering with companies such as Amtrak and several veterans organizations, including RecruitMilitary, Wounded Warrior Project and Army PaYS. Around 16 percent of the attendees were women, said a representative for RecruitMilitary.
“It’s less a guilt trip, less a ‘you owe this’ and more a ‘hey, do something smart for your company,’” Borggren said, adding that employers are noticing the soft and technical skills that veterans have to offer.
Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said more than 200 veterans at the Chicago job fair signed up to apply for jobs. The company set a goal to boost the number of veterans it hires to 25 percent of its staff by 2015.
Chase Guevarra, 32, a former structural mechanic in the U.S. Navy is now an accountant for Vernon Hills-based Business IT Source, a job she found through Craigslist rather than the veterans job fairs she once attended.
She described herself as the “go-to chick” in the military, who was eager to take on any task and added that didn’t change when she returned to the civilian world. Guevarra took full advantage of government resources, the GI bill and the government’s Transition Assistance Program to get the education and preparation she needed for a career as an accountant.
“You always have to prove yourself,” she said, adding that this applies to both the civilian and military worlds.
Civilian employers often require documented proof of skills learned while in the military, something Slone said she wasn’t able to show. But that is slowly changing.
There is an ongoing push to “make military training count,” Borggren said, and to give veterans the hard-copy credentials to show potential employers the technical skills and training they received in the military.
Neither Slone nor Guevarra pursued careers using their military technical skills, but Guevarra said the soft skills she gained could easily be translated to the civilian world.
“The Navy really helped me grow…in the civilian world I feel like a superhero,” she said, adding that while her civilian co-workers can be apprehensive about taking risks and making decisions, she has the “let’s do it now” attitude typical of the military.
For both women, though, government support to get additional education was crucial when they transitioned to civilian life.
Iris Alvarado, veteran relations coordinator at the Albany Park Community Center, said state and federal grants help veterans pursue education that opens doors to alternate careers.
“Veterans, I think, get pigeonholed into the stereotypes about their qualifications and skills,” said Alvarado, who herself served in active duty from 1996 to 2006.
The other problem, Alvarado said, is translating military-speak to resume-speak. “The military is chock full of jargon,” she said, adding that veterans need help learning how to articulate their skills to the civilian job market.
Slone faced this problem. After being discharged, she applied for bartending jobs.
“I was interviewing like I was still in the military,” she said, adding that her manner was formal and stiff.
“When a woman does it, that’s off, that’s suspicious. You’re not smiling, you’re not being pretty,” Slone said.
Guevarra, on the other hand, applied some techniques she learned at the government’s Transitional Assistance Program, such as writing thank-you cards to her interviewers.
Revealingly, when Guevarra asked her employers why they hired her, they told her that she “seemed the most normal out of all the applicants” and that they were impressed she had thank-you notes ready after the interview was over.
“I was like, oh that's cool, I learned that from the military," she said.
But there are certain complicating factors that might prevent women veterans from even seeking military resources, Borggren said. Among them, reluctance to identify themselves as veterans, needing to care for dependents and scars from sexual abuse suffered while in the military are major factors that alienate women.
People assume that women don’t serve in a similar capacity as their male counterparts and so women stop identifying themselves as veterans, Alvarado said.
“That creates this kind of language barrier, if you will,” she said. “Then I may not necessarily introduce myself as a veteran, because I don’t feel like this person is open to hearing my experience…There are several layers of not understanding a veteran’s experience,” Alvarado said.
For Slone this was true at Ohio State, where among younger students her introduction of herself as a veteran caused discomfort.
“I became acutely aware of the separation between myself and my community,” she said.
Community is the key, said Alvarado, who sees veterans at her job wanting to help and support other veterans. But “those things that are working at a peer-to-peer level are not being supported at a higher level with funding and resources.”
Borggren identifies a more basic problem.
“Just finding women veterans, getting them out of the woodwork and plugging them into the vast system of support that’s out there,” is important but not easy, she said.