More than one out of every five new hires made by the Tulsa Police Department has a military background.
"We're seeing more because of the conflicts in countries," said Sgt. Mark Sherwood, the department's lead recruiter. "People are coming out looking for jobs. We have seen quite an increase in that."
Over the last five years, out of approximately 180 new hires, about 40 had military experience, Sherwood said.
But competition is fierce for those positions. Out of a pool of roughly 300 applicants, the department selected only 30 recruits for its most recent academy class. Recruits also must have a four-year college degree to become an officer in Tulsa, one of only a few big cities to have such a stringent requirement.
Police work can be a natural fit for those with military training, but Tulsa employers in many industries are interested in hiring veterans, said Jon Nelson, manager of workforce centers in Sapulpa and Sand Springs.
That doesn't mean it's easy for young veterans to land jobs, he said.
"For the younger guys coming back, employment is a struggle for them." said Nelson. He added: "The hardest part for a young veteran coming back is trying to translate that work experience on a resume."
Nationally, veterans who were on active duty anytime since September 2001 had an unemployment rate of 12.1 percent last year. For young veterans especially, unemployment can be higher than those without a military background. Male veterans 18 to 24 had an unemployment rate of 29.1 percent last year, more than 10 percentage points higher than young non-veterans.
Tulsa police recruit Caleb Stroble, 31, served for four-and-a-half years in an Army combat infantry unit, including time in Iraq.
After leaving the Army in November 2009 with the rank of sergeant, Stroble -- who earned a college degree before entering the Army -- said he began pursuing his longtime dream of becoming a police officer.
It wasn't easy, however, with layoffs at the Tulsa Police Department around the time he was looking for work.
"I was unemployed for about five months," said Stroble. His dream job on hold, he said it took a couple of rounds of applications before landing a job in his field, working security at a hospital.
"I was lucky to find a job there," Stroble said. But the $11-per-hour job didn't compare with his past experience. He considered rejoining the military.
"I definitely had to question myself for a while, if I was doing the right thing. But I stuck with it and got accepted here," Stroble said.
He knows others he served with did not find what they were looking for in civilian life.
"They didn't have any kind of structure, didn't have a plan. Got out, kind of hoped for some kind of job to pan out and it didn't pan out. And they went right back into the military," Stroble said.
Tulsa veterans make up about 11 percent of the adult population, slightly more than the national average of about 10 percent, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
In Tulsa, including Sapulpa and Sand Springs, only 102 post 9/11 veterans have signed up for employment services through the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, which helps people find jobs.
Of course, that represents only a small fraction of area veterans receiving some kind of employment services, Nelson said, noting that various programs exist through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
While Stroble earned his degree before joining the service, education benefits have always been a strong lure for enlisted men and women. One enduring program has been the GI Bill. Rod Riggs, 48, used the program to help pay for classes at Oklahoma Technical College to further his welding career.
"I didn't think that I would ever end up utilizing it," said Riggs of the GI Bill. He actually declined the benefit while serving in the Navy. Had he enrolled, some of his military earnings would have been garnished.
After retiring from a 20-year military career, Riggs still qualified for the Post 9/11 GI-Bill, however. To get on track as a welder, he first gained on-the-job work experience and training through his union. He then enrolled at for-profit Oklahoma Technical College, where about one in five students have a military background.
Some have criticized for-profit schools for saddling students with loan debt. President Barack Obama said in an April speech that some for-profit schools are "trying to swindle" veterans with misleading information. He signed an executive order to create a streamlined complaint system for veterans and to make colleges provide data upfront about student outcomes like graduation rates.
Loan default rates are publicly available, but not yet for Oklahoma Technical College, founded just three years ago. Sister school Community Care College -- both have the same owner -- has a loan default rate of 14.4 percent according to online government records, well above the national default rate of 8.8 percent for all students but slightly below the national rate of 15 percent for for-profit colleges.
While four-year schools have much lower default rates, public school Tulsa Community College -- which has a full-time veterans services office -- has a similar loan default rate of 12.4 percent.
Riggs said that without the financial assistance because of his status as a veteran, "it would have been difficult, but I would have found a way" to pay for college. He was recently hired as a welding instructor at the school.
Along with financial concerns, veterans may have a disability from their years in the service. All veterans must also adjust from the rigid norms of military life to the less-structured civilian world.
Police recruit Jayson Smith, 31, left the military in January 2006 after working five years as a military policeman, including time spend in Iraq.
Smith had a clear goal to become a police officer or get a federal job in law enforcement, and he went to college and even earned a master's degree with financial help from the military. Like Stroble, he's expected to complete police academy training in June.
That doesn't mean the transition from soldier to student was easy, however.
"As a young person, when you're in something for that long, it really kind of becomes your identity," Smith said.
At the end of his service, Smith had earned the rank of sergeant, doing a range of police work and overseeing the work of others.
Then, after leaving the military, "I was a 23-year-old junior college student who lived with his parents," Smith said. "That was a big transition. It wasn't the easiest of transitions to overcome."
Kevin Barrett, 24, works as an auto technician at a dealership in Claremore, having completed auto mechanic training at Oklahoma Technical College after leaving the U.S. Marine Corp in 2010.
Life without a guaranteed check every month was "really scary," he said. Veterans accustomed to high-paying jobs can easily get frustrated once they leave the military, he said.
"They don't want to settle for less," Barrett said. "They want to get what they want, and sometimes they just can't do that."
Veterans who sign up for Oklahoma Job Link get a first look when staff search resumes for potential job matches, and those who sign up for employment services also receive priority for various training programs.
Information about these services can be found at ok.gov/oesc_web/Resources_For/Veterans/index.html or by visiting employment service centers, including the Tulsa Eastgate Workforce Center, at 14002 E. 21st St.
Earlier this year, the Oklahoma National Guard announced development of it Employment Coordination Program to help reservists find careers after deployment. More information is available at facebook.com/OKNGECP.
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