Phillip Slaughter left the Army after 18 years and found a job similar to one he had in uniform: behind the wheel of a truck. Instead of towing food and bullets through war zones, he hauled packages for FedEx.
It wasn’t what he wanted to do. The work aggravated his post-traumatic stress disorder. It would be three years and several jobs before he landed his ideal position as a sourcing recruiter for a tech company.
“I think it’s the first job that I’ve worked 10 consecutive months without quitting,” said Slaughter, 41, who lives in Clarksville, Tennessee.
Slaughter is a U.S. military veteran who found a job he loves at a time when the nation is experiencing some of its lowest monthly veteran unemployment on record. But the rate — 2.7% in October — can mask the difficulty of a transition that sometimes takes years of working unfulfilling jobs, while forging a new identity and a new purpose beyond serving one’s country.
“Even though (veteran unemployment) is low, I’m interested to see a survey on how many people are happy in the position they’re in,” said Slaughter, who also runs his own consulting firm for fellow vets.
Veterans account for about 7% of the civilian population, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Their jobless rate can help gauge the nation’s efforts to assist former service members, experts say. It can also reflect on the military and how it prepares departing personnel. High veteran unemployment is not good for recruiting.
For this Veterans Day, a handful of former service members talked about their experiences looking for work at a time when the veteran jobless rate is so low. For some, it was easy — but others have struggled.
Pierson Gest, a former Army infantryman, landed his first post-military job in August as a hydropower system designer in California.
Gest joined up during the Great Recession, knowing he’d eventually go to school on the GI Bill. Starting college in 2017 was tough at first as he developed study habits. But he got the hang of it, earning his engineering degree in June.
“I was lucky enough to negotiate a six-figure salary,” said Gest, 37, who lives outside San Francisco. “And I definitely used and leveraged my experience in the Army to negotiate that wage on top of my college degree.”
Across the country in Florida, Thomas Holmes is still searching for his ideal job.
Holmes, 46, left the Air Force in 2012 after 17 years, during which he maintained parachute systems for various types of aircraft, from F-15 fighter jets to U-2 spy planes.
He said the one full-time job he’s worked, in the billing and claims department of a warehouse office, was toxic. He quit after about 18 months.
Holmes used the GI Bill to earn three degrees, including a master’s in sports management. He found part-time work in the industry, but rising gas prices and the lure of more consistent hours prompted him to work at a nearby UPS store.
“I’ve applied for many jobs — county jobs, state jobs, all sorts of things,” said Holmes, who lives outside Tampa. “And then all I get is: ‘Well, thanks for your service.’”
Jayla Hair’s transition from Navy to civilian paralegal wasn’t easy, despite a bachelor’s degree in the field and skills that would seem transferable.
Hair, 30, said she applied to about 300 jobs over eight months. After seeking help from a Navy program and friends, Hair overhauled her resume and job interviews eventually came her way. But potential employers cited her lack of experience with state laws and civilian courts.
Hair took temporary jobs in the legal field and recently landed a full-time position as a paralegal for a Fortune 500 company in the Chicago area.
“Just having my military experience was not enough,” said Hair, who plans to pursue a law degree in the future. “If it wasn’t for me having these temporary jobs to build my civilian resume, I don’t know where I’d be right now.”
Hair landed her job at a time when veteran unemployment has been mostly dropping. The annual veteran jobless rate fell steadily from 8.7% in 2010 to 3.1% in 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Last year, after a spike fueled by the coronavirus pandemic, the annual rate was 4.4%. But the seasonally adjusted monthly percentage in March was 2.4, hailed by President Joe Biden as tied for the lowest rate on record. August also hit that mark.
The tight labor market and demand for workers after the coronavirus pandemic is likely one factor for the low veteran jobless rates, said Jeffrey B. Wenger, a senior policy researcher at the Rand Corp. But so are significant efforts in recent years by the U.S. military, Department of Veterans Affairs and veteran service organizations to provide assistance to outgoing service members.
Training such as resume-writing is now mandatory and American companies have launched initiatives to hire hundreds of thousands of vets.
Many of those undertakings grew from the Great Recession and the abundance of stressed-out service members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, which “brought the veteran employment crisis to a head,” Wenger said.
“And over the last 10 to 15 years, people have been putting in more and more resources and have become more and more dedicated to fixing that problem,” Wenger said.
Among them is Transition Overwatch, a firm that runs career apprenticeship programs across the country. CEO Sean Ofeldt said the company zeroes in on what active service members want to do as civilians, not what they’re doing or the skills they’ve learned in the military.
“A lot of military members don’t want to keep doing what they did,” said Ofeldt, a former Navy SEAL. “We train them up while they’re still on active duty and then launch them into an actual career with all the support they need for that first 12 months.”
But the formula for supporting veterans has to encompass more than just employment. It needs to focus on social challenges as well, said Karl Hamner, a University of Alabama education professor.
Veterans can feel isolated after losing their tribe of fellow service members. Hamner said new data indicates that loss can be especially acute for women because they formed strong bonds with one another as they navigated a male-dominated military.
In a soon-to-be released national survey of 4,700 female veterans conducted by Hamner and his colleagues, 70% said adjusting to civilian life was difficult; 71% said they needed more time to figure out what they wanted to do.
“They had to prove themselves in a valued, highly regarded profession,” Hamner said. “And now they’re back to trying to figure out what it means to be a civilian woman and deal with all the standard discriminatory stuff.”
Sign up for the Fortune Features email list so you don’t miss our biggest features, exclusive interviews, and investigations.