When Marine Sergeant Christopher Carter was deployed to Iraq in 2007, he used heavy equipment to help repair and maintain roads in the war-scarred country.
Now home in Lenox, Carter, 35, still has the skills and experience to operate bulldozers and bucket loaders. But he doesn’t have a piece of paper certifying he completed a formal apprenticeship in the use of such equipment. It’s been enough to keep the father of four from landing a job in the field he spent years learning.
“I could just tell people I operated gear [in Iraq] until I was blue in the face and they would never even care,” he said.
Military recruiting advertisements praise the valuable training and experience the armed services can offer. But in recent years, many veterans have not been able to convert those qualifications into jobs in the private sector. The unemployment rate among Iraq and Afghanistan-era veterans age 24 and under topped 30 percent in 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Major employers — including JPMorgan Chase, IBM, and General Electric — have started initiatives aimed at bringing more veterans on board. Those efforts got a major boost this month when Walmart Stores Inc. unveiled a plan to hire an estimated 100,000 veterans over the next five years.
Under the Walmart plan, veterans who have been honorably discharged from the military since Jan. 15, 2012, will be given first crack at available jobs within 50 miles of their homes. Applicants must meet the requirements of the position and successfully pass a drug test and criminal background check. Walmart operates 49 stores in Massachusetts, withnearly 11,700 full- and part-time employees.
The most commonly available positions are likely to be part-time store associate and assistant manager trainee jobs.
A number of positions at various stores are likely to open up in the spring, according to Brooke Buchanan, a Walmart spokeswoman. Most of the jobs, however, are low paying, especially for someone with substantial work experience. The average wage for Walmart employees in Massachusetts is $13.67 per hour, or just over $28,000 annually for a full-time worker.
But Buchanan — citing an extraordinary example — said ambitious vets hired by the retailer will have opportunities to advance.
“The CEO of Walmart International started as a cart pusher,” she said.
But critics question whether Walmart really represents a good career path for veterans. They say the chain is known for its low pay and holding employees to part-time hours so they aren’t eligible for benefits.
“Unless those jobs change, those aren’t the kind of jobs that any American needs, especially those that are coming back from serving our country,” said Yana Walton, communications director for the Retail Action Project, a labor partnership based in New York that advocates for improved working conditions in the retail industry.
Buchanan acknowledged that Walmart’s program may not appeal to some veterans looking for employment.
“Not every vet who is coming off service wants to go into retail,” she said, “but if they do they’ll have a spot at Walmart.”
Plenty of companies want to hire veterans, but people often aren’t equipped to discuss their military training in ways civilian interviewers might understand, said Kevin Schmiegel, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Hiring our Heroes program. Based in Washington, D.C., the initiative aims to find jobs for veterans and their spouses.
“Maybe they focus too much on military jargon or technical skills and don’t know how to talk about the intangibles,” Schmiegel said of vets.
And with so many businesses relying on software programs to sort applications these days, failing to get the wording just right on a resume can spell trouble, according to Francisco Urena, the commissioner of Veteran’s Services for the City of Boston.
The disconnect between military and civilian employment is exacerbated by the fact that the proportion of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in the general population is “unprecedentedly small,” said Paul Rieckhoff, chief executive of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a nonprofit based in New York.
Over the past decade, less than 1 percent of the population has been in uniform at any given time. That means few hiring managers understand how veterans’ military experiences translate into job qualifications, Rieckhoff said.
“We have to work with employers, help them understand where there may be a business match,” he said.
Walmart’s hiring program may in fact help create some momentum toward that goal, if other companies emulate the practices of the influential retailer, Rieckhoff said.
“They are going to influence their vendors and their partners and everybody else they do business with,” he said.
In Lenox, Iraq veteran Carter is doing what he can to bridge the gap. He works part time at a pizza shop while he searches for a job as a supervisor or middle manager, positions he believes his leadership roles in the Marines prepared him to handle.
He worked with nonprofit group Hire Heroes USA to develop a new resume that helps explain his qualifications in laymen’s terms. He also is giving the Walmart veterans program a try.
“The day after I heard about that, I filled out the online application,” Carter said. “I haven’t heard anything from them yet, but it’s only been a few days.”