Leaving the military? Job prospects are better than you think

November 10, 2011, 5:31 PM UTC

By Anne Fisher, contributor

FORTUNE — At first glance, this Veterans’ Day might seem to offer military personnel and their families little to celebrate. As our involvement in  Iraq winds down, federal budget cuts are scheduled to drain at least $350 million (and possibly as much as $1 trillion) from the Pentagon’s coffers in the years ahead. Every branch of the military has announced plans for tens of thousands of layoffs.

That might be less daunting if unemployment among veterans were not already so high. The average jobless rate across the U.S. among post-9/11 vets is 11.5% (2.5% higher than the civilian rate), but in many places, it’s much worse — 15.2% in New York State, for instance, and a whopping 29.4% in Michigan.

In a way, this is a puzzling problem, because plenty of managers say that veterans make great employees. A new ATS/Nielsen poll of manufacturing-company CEOs, for example, says that 85% see former military candidates as having hard-to-find skills. Another study, by Monster.com, reports that 69% of employers believe veterans “perform their job functions ‘much better’” than non-veterans, and 99% who had hired a veteran in the past would be eager to do so again.

At the same time, the Monster.com poll reveals a major challenge for veterans: More than three-quarters (77%) of employers said that job seekers need to do a better job of translating their military experience into terms that civilian interviewers can recognize.

To help out with that, Military.com, one of Monster’s divisions, this week unveiled a new feature called the Military Skills Translator. The tool lets veterans select their branch of service, enter a rank and rating, and find out how to describe what they’ve accomplished in civilian language.

Nor is Monster.com the only job site reaching out to vets. On Monday, in connection with the Obama Administration’s Veterans Job Bank program — a challenge to companies to hire or train 100,000 veterans by 2013 — SimplyHired.com launched a filter designed to direct former military folks to 500,000 “veteran-friendly” job openings.

Meanwhile, the list of employers mounting new efforts to bring vets on board gets longer every day. A small sampling of recent announcements:

  • Microsoft (MSFT), in a partnership with the U.S. Department of Labor, plans to offer 10,000 technology training and certification packages to veterans over the next two years.
  • Honeywell (HON) is expanding its existing military-recruitment program to include hiring at least 500 veterans this year.
  • Siemens (SI), having pledged to fill 10% of its 3,000 job openings with veterans in 2011, surpassed that goal months ago and now aims to hire at least 450 more vets by year-end.
  • Goldman Sachs (GS), along with Citigroup (C), Bank of America (BAC), and other banks have formed a coalition called Veterans on Wall Street to hire and train more vets.
  • Wal-Mart (WMT), on top of myriad donations like a $1 million gift to a program called the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities developed at Syracuse University, is working with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to sponsor more than 100 job fairs for veterans nationwide.
  • Blimpie is encouraging vets to buy submarine sandwich franchises by lowering the initial franchise fee from $18,000 to $47.

A cynic might point out (correctly) that employers get tax breaks for hiring veterans, such as the Wounded Warrior Tax Credit of up to $4,800 for each new hire with a service-related disability. (A bill now before Congress would double that to $9,600 for hiring any disabled veteran who has been unemployed for longer than six months.)

But the main reason for the big recruiting push, as Monster.com’s research suggests, is that — once they learn how to present their experience in civilian terms — vets’ credentials are often stellar.

“People come out of the armed services with an enormous variety of skills, from leadership training to cybersecurity to finance,” says Jeff Cathey, head of military banking at Bank of America and himself a decorated veteran.

“They also understand teamwork. And they have an amazing work ethic, so they tend to thrive in a pay-for-performance environment,” Cathey adds. “They embrace challenge. You can’t overtask them.”

Who wouldn’t want to hire someone like that?