Coming Home PA is a project spearheaded by PublicSource, a local nonprofit investigative news group, with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and other local media partners.
When Mia Cerda was at Shaler Area High School, she never had trouble finding work.
From age 15, the quiet, shy but determined young woman worked at a carwash, at a restaurant and at a clothing store at Ross Park Mall.
"It was so easy to get a job," says Ms. Cerda, now 22, who enlisted in the Air Force Reserve in July 2008 straight out of high school at the urging of her mother, a veteran of the Persian Gulf War.
But when she ended her first tour of duty in May 2010, after 4 1/2 months in Iraq, the economy had tanked. Ms. Cerda, then living in Charleston, S.C., put together a resume that included her Reserve status and suddenly discovered she was unemployable.
Jobs were scarce anyway that year, but many members of the National Guard and Reserves -- and the job counselors who try to help them -- believe employers were reluctant to hire them for fear they would be redeployed.
As an Air Transportation Apprentice in Iraq, Ms. Cerda operated forklifts and processed cargo deliveries under severe time pressure amid the constant sound of mortar attacks.
But once on reserve status back home, she started dropping off resumes in Charleston -- and got nothing. Not from the nearby Boeing aircraft plant. Not from restaurants. Not a nibble.
Finally, Ms. Cerda got an offer of a minimum wage job from a jewelry store in an isolated shopping plaza outside Charleston.
It was "the worst job I ever had. No one ever came in the store."
After a few months, she quit, and moved back to Shaler.
Were Ms. Cerda's job woes related to her status as a Reservist?
"I actually thought it would help, so I was kind of surprised," she said.
Brian Orczeck isn't surprised.
" I don't recommend they put [their Guard and Reserve status] on their resumes anymore," said Mr. Orczeck, a veterans representative at the PA Career Links Alle-Kiski office, and a former officer in Marine Intelligence. "I advise my Reservists to put only the date of discharge on their resume, and when they do, their hiring outcomes improve."
Ted Daywalt, an outspoken veteran's advocate and founder of VetJobs.com, an online jobs board co-sponsored by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, argues that small businesses routinely avoid hiring Guard and Reserve members -- as opposed to active duty members who separate permanently from the service.
The Guard is especially hard hit, he says, because they're not only activated for wars "but for state emergencies, which means they're called away more often than their Reserve counterparts."
In 2007, with Iraq and Afghanistan going full tilt, the Department of Defense changed its call-up policy to make deployments longer and more frequent. Unemployment skyrocketed, Mr. Daywalt said, noting that the 20- to 24-year-old young veteran jobless rate went up from 10.4 percent in 2006 to 22.3 percent in 2007.
In Kuwait, a survey in February of National Guard brigades from Oklahoma and Texas pegged the jobless rate at 68 percent, Mr. Daywalt said in testimony before a House committee in February.
A federal law, the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), prohibits employers from laying off employees before they're deployed or eliminating their jobs when they return. It was designed to encourage "noncareer" soldiers -- i.e. Guard and Reserve members -- to serve their country without fear of retaliation by employers.
But the law is frequently ignored or unenforced, and announcements of future Guard and Reserve deployments -- often months before actual call ups -- prompt businesses to lay off veterans before they are told officially to report for duty, thus avoiding legal sanctions.
"Companies have learned that if they lay off an employee under the guise of the current recession before the employee has orders in hand the company can subvert or circumvent USERRA," Mr. Daywalt testified.
Federal officials dismiss the notion that the Pentagon's call-up policy change in 2007 has led to higher unemployment, or that Guard or Reserve unemployment is as high as Mr. Daywalt claims.
Maj. Gen. Keith Thurgood, a top-ranking officer in the Army Reserve, also declined to speculate on the relationship between the call-up policy and Reserve unemployment figures.
He was nonetheless the force behind the Army Reserve's Employer Partnership Program -- which was so successful that the Pentagon adopted it for all branches. It lists jobs from more than 2,900 companies that have pledged to hire Guard and Reserve members and has helped numerous veterans, including John Schoener of Uniontown.
A major in the Army Reserve, Mr. Schoener has been deployed frequently since 1991 -- twice to Iraq, and expects to be deployed again in the next year.
"I have heard in the past, don't put your military stuff on your resume, but mine is largely built around my skills as an officer," said Mr. Schoener, who currently has a civilian job working at a manufacturing company overseeing logistics and transportation -- which he found after searching the Employer Partnership program. "If I don't list those skills, I'm hurting myself."
New deployment policies mean future "readiness cycles" will last one year out of every three or four, for example, instead of every nine months, and provide more predictability and stability than in the past.
"If we can help employers understand that, it will take the angst out of the equation," Gen. Thurgood said.
Ms. Cerda, who was redeployed to Afghanistan last summer for another six months, isn't taking any chances in the job market this time.
After returning in March, she moved to Michigan to be with her fiance and to enroll in college.
All the cargo processing experience in the world didn't help her much, she realized while behind the counter of that jewelry store in Charleston.
"This was not what I had seen myself doing. I knew then that I needed to go back to school."
Mackenzie Carpenter: email@example.com or 412-263-1949. First Published April 15, 2012 1:30 PM