Some young vets struggle to find workby Mark Zdechlik, Minnesota Public Radio
Several thousand Minnesotans have been to Iraq and back over the past five years. Some are finding that the economic downturn has made getting a job more difficult than it used to be.
St. Paul, Minn. — Dustin Shugren, 22, is happy to share the hundreds of pictures he brought home to Minnesota from Iraq.
"You know, I look at them quite often," he said. "I show a lot of people them because I want people to see kind of like what I was looking at everyday."
Shugren got back from Iraq about a year and a half ago.
He smiled as he went through files of pictures on his laptop. He said the images document what life was like for him in Iraq -- the friends he made and all the things he saw and learned.
"Right here, I have a folder of just the pictures of the temperature," he said. "This is the hottest day I took a picture of, and it was 137 degrees. It was a pretty warm day."
There are pictures of Shugren's barracks, of guns, and of Iraqis, along with many snapshots of his friends.
"I had a good time over there," he said. "Like right here's a folder of where we were grilling out. Here's a good picture to show. As you can see we got lobster tails, hamburgers. There's ribs. It was just stuff that we could get."
Shugren graduated from St. Francis High School in 2003. He enlisted in the Army Reserve the following spring. He was stationed 50 miles north of Baghdad at Balad Air Base for about a year. He said he misses his Army buddies.
"It's very different because the friends that you make while you're in Iraq are, it's a whole another friend that what you have back home," he said.
Shugren now lives with his older brother north of the Twin Cities in a basement apartment of St. Francis home.
He said even after a year and a half, it's still weird being back home.
"It's different because you come back, they put you in general public and you have no control over nothing," he said. "People look different. There ain't no uniforms. There ain't nothing. When I got home with my best friends, it's like wow, dude, you really need to get a haircut."
Shugren's hair is buzz-cut military short. He is tall and thin.
At a veterans job fair in November of 2007, he was optimistic about finding a full time job. He said then he was looking for something more stable than the seasonal lawn care he'd been doing.
"It's kind of like shooting fish in a barrel," he said. "You're almost guaranteed to get one. So hopefully I'll find a good job."
But Shugren's military experience welding and repairing weapons has not caught the interest of potential employers in Minnesota. He has not found a job. And he's well aware now is a difficult time to be out looking.
"Everybody asks for experience. Well, I didn't really have much experience in being a machinist," he said. "I don't really have much experience doing this or doing that. Well, I know how to work on guns, but it's hard to get that job because they want you to be gunsmith certified. So I'd have to go back to school and redo all of that. I could go to a welding job. I do have experience in that. I've applied at CAT, and I didn't get that job. But that's alright."
Shugren said he's really not even looking for a job right now. His seasonal lawn work picks up in April. He said he will restart his job search in the fall.
The most recent U.S. Department of Labor statistics show the unemployment rate among veterans is slightly lower than that of the general population, a little less than 4 percent last year. But for young vets, like Shugren, the rate is nearly 12 percent, well above non-veterans in the same age 20 to 24 age group.
The labor department says it's concerned about the high unemployment rate among young vets and that it's working to bring it down.
The director of veterans employment programs in Minnesota, Jim Finley, said more job placement services are available to veterans in Minnesota than to non-veterans. But Finley said not all of the vets who need help know that.
"One of my biggest concerns is the fact that there are people out there that don't know that we exist," he said. "There are people out there, I talk to them all the time, who tell me I didn't even know about you guys. And because of the fact that we're a government agency we don't spent a lot of money on marketing. So we worry about that."
Apart from attending that job fair last fall, Dustin Shugren said he has not sought help in finding a job from veterans assistance programs. His said so far being a veteran has not opened any doors for him.
People sometimes thank him for his service, like the passengers on the airplane ride home who offered to buy him a beer and gestured for him to walk off of the jet ahead them.
But he said now even finding discounts at restaurants, let alone landing the right job, is tough.
"It almost seems like nobody really support the military or even the soldier alone," he said. "If more companies can just try working for the soldier, doing stuff for the soldier, it would be a lot better. Nobody really cares any more these days and it's kind of bad I think."
Shugren plans to move back into his parents' home so he can save some money. He said his unit could be deployed again as soon as next year. He said wouldn't mind going back to Iraq.
- Morning Edition, 03/19/2008, 7:41 a.m.