Do You Want Fries With That Back-Up Plan?

**Participants have been given pseudonyms to protect confidentiality**

The most interesting little nuggets of qualitative data are the things you don’t ask about, but that come up over and over again. While Meredith and I were conducting interviews with servicemembers who were about to leave the military—we kept hearing the same curious statement unprompted by our own interview questions. Service members would tell us that, if they had to, they would do anything to find a job, even work at McDonald’s or be a Wal-Mart Greeter:

“I know for a fact that I’ll be able to go to school and find a job. It’s just ‘What kind of job?’ I don’t want to just settle but as it comes down to the wire, I will settle and do whatever I can. I’ll work at McDonald’s…I don’t care.” (Male, Marine Corps, 12 years of service, Enlisted, Age 30)

“So if I’ve got to work at McDonald’s, I’m going to hate it but I’ll go do it. It’s going to happen. I used to think my dream job was being the greeter at Wal-Mart when I retired (laughs). But, I mean, realism is part of life. And realistically, I’ve got to get a job.” (Male, Navy, 21 years of service, Enlisted, Age 41)

“…so I tried to convince [my wife], I said ‘Look, I’ve got a Masters degree, I’m not stupid!’ Probably could get at least a people greeting job at Wal-Mart if I need to.’ So we’ll get something…yeah.”(Male, Army, 22 years of service, Enlisted, Age 45)

“[before school starts]… I kind of just wanna look for a job, part-time job, doing pretty much whatever. I don’t care if it’s serving fries up at McDonald’s. That’s fine.” (Female, Navy, 7 years of service, Enlisted, Age 28)

“And I’m a tough person. I may be medically injured, but I can’t quit working. I’d go crazy. So I don’t care if I’m a Wal-Mart greeter; I’ll still do something.” (Male, Army, 20 years of service, Enlisted, Age 46).

The transition out of the military is a time of monumental change and uncertainty for servicemembers. Whether you’ve served your entire career in the military or just a few years, I imagine getting out feels like you’re about to make a running leap to cross the gap between two cliffs. For some, getting out is an exciting prospect, it’s something they’ve been dreaming of for years. For others, getting out is difficult and heartbreaking—having to step away from a career you’ve loved and an identity you cherished. As with any big change in life, you don’t know what to expect and your anticipation level is high. You can plan and prepare, but it will still feel unknown until the change happens.

For this research, we interviewed servicemembers before they transitioned out of the military and again several months after they were out. In our initial interviews we caught them anywhere from 10 months away from leaving the military to just shy of 2 weeks. We wanted to dig deeper into how servicemembers actually experienced the transition out of the military, examining how their own expectations and perceptions may influence their trajectory. Our interview guide was designed to ask questions that uncovered their perceptions of the civilian labor force, how they viewed their skill sets and experiences from the military, and what plans they had made in pursuing civilian employment or higher education. We conducted in-depth interviews with 48 active-duty servicemembers of different ages, ranks, occupational specialties, years in service, and from all service branches (except the Coast Guard), and we were able to follow-up with 35 of them in post-transition interviews 6 to 12 months after leaving active-duty.

As we progressed through our initial interviews, respondents would flippantly throw out McDonald’s and Wal-Mart, statements that both surprised us and caught our attention. Based on our coding (i.e. identifying themes) around 20% of our respondents expressed these sentiments directly or in the more general form of ‘I’ll work anywhere, I’ll do anything if I have to.’ McDonalds and Wal-Mart are two of the most iconic American corporate institutions with minimum-wage, low-skill jobs—the kind of jobs that people think anyone could do and no one wants to do.

As we continued to think about it, it was the context that intrigued us: what are they really saying here, and why does this example come up over and over again in our interviews? The fact that it wasn’t just a few of our respondents saying this made us think there is something more to these statements.

Is it a Legitimate Safety Net?

Is it possible that servicemembers who are transitioning out of the military think of these jobs as a legitimate safety net? A plan for if all else fails? These examples were usually brought up when servicemembers were asked about their back-up plans or if they were worried about finding a job or getting into school. It was stated as an after-thought, making the leap from their plans and realistic possibilities straight to the worst-case scenario.

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It’s easy to think that low-wage low-skill work is readily available, akin to on-demand and disposable employment. If you’re in a pinch, you can always get a job at Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, or [insert minimum-wage job here], right? If you’re willing to do the job and able to—you qualify! However, most of our sample had no previous experience working in service or customer service oriented industries and likely do not have an accurate perception of the availability of these jobs.

The allure of veterans preference programs and veterans hiring initiatives also adds an additional layer—the idea that veterans have a leg-up on the rest of the applicants because they are given veterans preference. In our initial interviews, we found that veterans preference is mentioned frequently (almost half of our respondents talked about it), but few veterans have an accurate understanding of how and when it applies. Many of our respondents perceived veterans preference to be ubiquitous in the civilian labor market, when it’s most notably a formal program for federal and government employment. This perception is complicated by corporate veteran hiring initiatives, which differ from veteran preference. In 2013, Wal-Mart announced a large veteran hiring initiative—promising jobs to any transitioning servicemember with an honorable discharge. Of course, there are no reported guarantees on the number of hours, types of jobs, or wage information for these Wal-Mart jobs.

When you combine these two commonly held beliefs: veterans preference/advantage and readily available minimum wage jobs, it is easy to see why a McDonald’s job could seem like a realistic back-up plan for transitioning service members. But anyone who has tried to get one of these minimum-wage jobs (or any civilian job for that matter) realizes that readily available employment is an illusion. I myself have had to learn this lesson the hard way. During a break in my PhD funding I decided to look for a job—something part-time where I could pick up a few hours to supplement my income that wouldn’t distract me from my research. Most of my applications didn’t even meet the electronic threshold for initial consideration by a human being—aka, I was rejected via email hours or days after submitting my resume. Even though I had customer service experience from my time in high school and college and I was a graduate student who had been consistently employed—I didn’t even have enough direct experience to be considered for a hosting job at a restaurant. I eventually got a couple interviews from my efforts, but it certainly wasn’t a quick or easy process.

We first interviewed Chris a couple months before he was getting out of the Army. He had spent 6 years in the military and was ready to pursue his goal of earning his bachelor’s degree and moving into a career in the finance world. He had always thought of the Army as a stepping-stone: an opportunity to gain experience and valuable benefits for college. Between leaving the military and starting school full-time he was looking for a part-time job to bring in some extra money before his GI stipend kicked in. At the time of our interview, he was on terminal leave from the Army and was already looking for part-time work in his new location:

Interviewer: Are you worried at all about finding a job after college? I know it’s far off, but…

Chris: After college will not be that bad, but right now it sucks. I bet I’ve applied for 30 jobs already since we [moved]. Nothing.

Interviewer: What kind of jobs are you—I know it’s just part-time work, but what are you looking to do?

Chris: Everything. It’s just – all I have is leadership. I don’t have any job specific skills so it’s pretty much like hiring an 18-year-old person and remember how hard it was to get a job when you were in high school because you didn’t have any experience? Well, I have leadership, but I don’t have any serving experience – like, customer service experience – stuff like that, which is just a pain in the butt.

Chris wasn’t expecting to have so much difficulty finding a part-time job, but he quickly realized that employers didn’t see his Army experience as relevant. When he began his search, he was selective with his applications because he wanted to work at an up-scale grocery store, like Whole Foods or Trader Joes. After unsuccessful attempts he realized he needed to expand his search, and by the time we interviewed him he was looking for anything or everything he could get. At our second interview, Chris recounted that he applied to at least 60 jobs and it took him three months of searching before he was hired as a seasonal employee at Old Navy. He eventually got another part-time job working at an auto-parts store before he quit that job to focus on school.

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The perception that low-wage, low-skill jobs are readily available is an unrealistic expectation and a risky back-up plan for transitioning servicemembers. Compared to the 20% of our sample who described these jobs as their back-up plan, only 4 individuals (less than 1% of our sample) discussed another back-up plan: unemployment.

Servicemembers who are leaving active-duty service prior to retirement with an honorable discharge are eligible for unemployment benefits under the Unemployment Compensation for Ex-service members (UCX). Given that our entire sample of non-retirees would qualify for these benefits, it is surprising to hear that very few of them even mentioned unemployment benefits in their possible back-up plans or worst-case scenario situations. While unemployment benefits may not cover all of the expenses for a servicemember or their family, it is a straightforward application process and a stable benefit offered by the government; a less risky option than trying to secure a minimum-wage service job in many areas.

In 2013, the Department of Defense spent a total of $829 million on unemployment benefits for ex-servicemembers. Between 2011 and 2013, 50% of all separating servicemembers applied for their UCX benefits (see section 2.3 of the 2015 Veteran Economic Opportunity Report). Carter and Miller (2015) analyzed UCX benefits usage by Army soldiers and found that these numbers increase when removing retirees from the separation figures. For example, they found that 59% of all eligible, non-retiring soldiers applied for unemployment benefits between 2011 and 2013. Their analysis also examines differences in gender, rank, years in service, military base, and reason for separation. It is clear that while separating servicemembers aren’t talking about using their unemployment benefits, many eventually do.

Even though servicemembers express their willingness to work anywhere, their actions do not follow through. This leads me to ask (again): why is there such an insistence on their willingness to work anywhere? I’ve found that this talk is not the articulation of a literal plan as much as it is a symbolic display of character, an outward demonstration of individual merit.

The Hard-Working Veteran Narrative

During our interviews it was apparent that our soon-to-be veterans were aware that veteran unemployment was a problem. While they didn’t always quote the correct percentage, they knew that the veteran unemployment rate for recent veterans was significantly higher than comparable civilians. The two ways our respondents explained the high unemployment rate were: (1) the military-civilian divide, and (2) characterizing unemployed veterans as lazy. In our last post, Meredith poked holes in the idea that veterans are discriminated against in the hiring process. While most of our respondents didn’t accuse civilian employers of direct discrimination, they pointed to the fact that civilians often do not know or understand much about military service, giving them a disadvantage in the hiring process. The second explanation for the veteran unemployment problem was that veterans who are unemployed are lazy:

“[The] unemployment rates, blah, blah, blah, like I said, they do kind of set you up to succeed when you get out. So the fact that veterans’ unemployment rate is so high, I feel like some guys are maybe being lazy about it. Other guys, it’s just they can’t adapt or something like that. I think that the guys that are not getting jobs are just being lazy or something.” (Male, Navy, 7 years of service, Enlisted, Age 32)

“…you got to be driven – you got to want to do it – want to find out and – like I said, it’s taking care of yourself. You’re doing yourself a favor by figuring it out because people aren’t going to hold your hand and walk you to appointments. Make sure you’re there on time. Make sure you get the service you needed and wait for you and so on. So yeah, it’s just lazy, there’s lazy people who don’t really care, like “whatever…” That’s probably the attitude a lot of those guys that do get in that position have. I think most do pretty well, though.” (Male, Navy, 11 years of service, Officer, Age 34)

“…So that’s the thing you have to come to terms with. “I’m not about to get babysat!” That’s the scary part! You’re not going to get babysat. This ain’t the real world! Nobody’s going to babysit you, whether you’re making ten dollars an hour or ten thousand dollars a month. Dude, nobody’s going to be here and babysit you like that. That’s the biggest thing, the transfer from [when you get out]. That’s it. And that’s why these veterans have such a hard tine—if they’re having a hard time, that’s probably one of the reasons. That’s it.” (Male, Army, 3 years of service, Enlisted, Age 29)

To explain the gap between veteran preference and veteran hiring initiatives on the one hand, and the high rates of veteran unemployment on the other hand, transitioning servicemembers blame the individual for being lazy. The veteran who can’t find work isn’t doing a thorough job search for civilian employment, or is expecting things opportunities and help to be handed to him/her. It is important to note that these are preconceived notions about a generalized other—the unemployed veteran—rather than specific examples about their friend who couldn’t find work or their own experiences transitioning out of the military. Even though they’re general and not linked to any direct experiences, they are still powerful social beliefs that can dictate behavior. If veterans identify the problem of unemployment to be within the individual’s control then the solution is also within the individual’s control: an ethic of hard-work.

Adam, who was quoted above, says he’ll do anything to avoid “going broke”:

“If I run out of money, I’ll do – I will never go broke. I’ll take a job somewhere if I have to. So I know that like if I have to move or whatever, I’ll throw a – I’ll use Monster for job placement, go knock on some doors. Hopefully, I don’t have to like strip or anything crazy like that. I’d prefer not to.” (Male, Navy, 7 years of service, Enlisted, Age 32)

Other respondents echoed similar feelings:

“When I get to where I’m going, all that really matters to me is that I get a job. It might be two part-time jobs, and it might not be the greatest job in the world, but it’s temporary, so if I have to, um, you know, stock shelves in a store, that’s not the ideal.” (Male, Army, 8 years of service, Enlisted, Age 28)

“I can just find almost any job. I don’t really have a problem finding a job. I’m not too picky. If I need to get a job, I’ll go and get a job doing whatever. I know a lot of people that would give me a job.” (Male, Army, 3 years of service, Enlisted, Age 23)

The statements (and the ones from the beginning of this post about working at McDonald’s or Wal-Mart) are charged with language that emphasizes their personal work ethic. If their transition out of the military doesn’t go as planned they will find a way to make it through, even if they have to work at a job that is far below their self-identified pay or skill level. While it may not be the most secure or reliable back-up plan, this is why working at minimum-wage low-status jobs comes up over and over again while the use of unemployment benefits is rarely mentioned. Veterans who declare their tenacity and hard work can protect themselves from being seen as lazy and potentially assuage their own fears about transitioning out of the military. Planning to use unemployment benefits doesn’t provide the same personal and social benefits as claiming that you’re going to pull yourself up by your bootstraps if times get hard.

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The emphasis on individual-based outcomes and merit-driven narratives is dangerous because it erases the very real structural conditions and constraints that impact the transition process. Transitioning servicemembers may have very different experiences in their transition due to factors far outside of their work ethic, including: local labor market conditions, the transferability of their skills and experiences from the military, their educational level, family composition, their age and the place of military service in their life course. The perception that veterans struggling to find their way in the civilian world are lazy will blind servicemembers to the real challenges they may find as they navigate post-military life.

It is important that we have open, honest conversations about the transition out of the military and reduce the negative stereotypes of those who struggle to find their way. The military can do more to educate servicemembers and provide individual career counseling during the transition process, and the media can go beyond statistics or blaming discrimination by sharing the real, complicated stories of veterans who have transitioned out, both those who have been successful and those who wandered for a while. Servicemembers and veterans who can acknowledge the individual and structural constraints that impact this transition can better prepare themselves for what is to come—relying less on their individual narratives of hard work and more on actions that will help them to achieve their post-military employment or education goals.

 

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