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Iraq War Veteran Finds that the Highly Qualified Need Not Apply

New America Media, Commentary, Christian Knierim Posted: Nov 11, 2009

Editors Note: Former Air Force intelligence officer Christian Knierim gives a first-person account of the frustrations of finding work in a recovering economy that doesnt value skills, experience or sacrifice. Knierim wrote his narrative for the Veterans Workshop, a New America Media writing project for combat veterans.

So here was this kid, a recent graduate from a fancy college, telling me, Thanks for your interest in volunteering with us, but we dont have any volunteer roles that fit your experience at this time.

Wait what? I quickly shot back. Wait a minute. I thought I just clearly related to you how my skills and experience would be a great match for these projects and you still think my skills arent a match? Is there something Im missing here?

I would never have expected someone with my life experience and skills to be rejected for a volunteer position at a non-profit. I mean, doesnt volunteer mean you work for free? Who turns down free stuff, especially if its work? Would you turn down someone if they offered to wash your car for free?

During my eight years as a U.S. Air Force intelligence officer, I had taken on a wide variety of roles around the world, operating in very fast-paced, multi-task environments. I had led teams of highly trained technicians, and had been involved in both developing and directly employing some very sophisticated and exciting technology. I had deployed with special operations forces in Iraq as an intelligence analyst hunting down international terrorists, and I had spent a year in South Korea as an expert on North Koreas military capabilities.

But today, I was just looking to offer my expertise and experience in the hope of making some new networking contacts. The job search situation has been brutal for me during this great economic recession. I thought that, if anything, volunteering at a non-profit would let me add some civilian work experience to my rsum. More importantly, I believed that volunteering would get me engaged in a productive routine again, because the longer this job search lasts, the harder it is for me to stay motivated as my appetite for job hunting rapidly wanes.

I had been looking for a job for months, and I was very eager to break out of a demoralizing routine that begins every day as I struggle to get myself out of bed. Every morning, I lay awake in bed, mentally reviewing the previous days rejections and non-responses to job inquiries, and racking my brains to re-strategize my job search. I stare at the walls and ceiling, stare out the window, stare at the stuff in my room, agonizing over how to re-plan the rest of my life.

And that part, the part about re-planning my life each morning, is especially worrisome and frustrating. I look at all the stuff in my room, at the things that I acquired from all over the world -- Alpine cow bells from Switzerland, cannibal pitch forks from the South Pacific, a piece of barbed wire fence from the Korean demilitarized zone -- and it reminds me of my military experience. I remember that it was the application of my talents, skills, and motivation in my former professional life that got me to those far off places. Now, despite my best efforts, here in my own country, I cant get a human being to so much as talk to me about the possibility of a decent job.

I look out the Bay windows of my room at the spectacular view of San Franciscos North Beach neighborhood and downtown financial district, and I get real sad that Im not able to fully enjoy everything that a wonderful city like this has to offer because I dont have a job to go to. Without work, I feel I dont have a purpose, and I dont fit into my countrys normal society.

Being brand new to this city, and brand new to civilian life, networking opportunities are still far and few between for me. During the long lulls between networking events and the very rare interview, I spend entire days chained to the computer, checking job listings, churning out cover letters and resumes, and e-mailing them into the void.

The more time I spend at the computer with no tangible results, the more isolated I feel and the more the despair grows. I lay in bed longer every morning. Every day, I slither rather than spring out of bed, dreading the days fruitless job search, rejections and non-responses. For my own sanity, I was looking for a productive excuse to get out of the house, and volunteering seemed like a great way to do it.

The particular non-profit that I approached was providing consulting services to other community organizations that needed help getting started or expanding their operations. I saw two projects that I would be a good fit for.

The first project involved helping an organization grow as it took on more mission areas. The non-profit needed a volunteer who could interview an organizations employees and find out what other resources -- people, funding, equipment -- they needed to be able to continue doing their current work while taking on new initiatives.

I thought Id be perfect for this role. After all, I had three years of experience building sophisticated, high-priced, military capabilities while assigned to a major organizations headquarters in Europe. I had successfully secured more funding, manpower, and equipment from hardnosed Pentagon higher-ups. I had racked my brains with teams of experts to figure out technical work-arounds for shortfalls in equipment. I had executed and managed multi-million dollar budgets, prioritizing which bills had to be paid and determined what new opportunities we needed to invest in. So conducting a simple workers survey at a small, local non-profit in order to help them expand their operations seemed like a cakewalk to me.

The second project needed someone to research how much advertising and exposure a new organization was getting in the community. The job seemed pretty simple: surf the Internet, pay attention to local TV coverage, and just get out on the street and research how visible this new organization was and how much attention it was getting. Just research, investigate, survey, ask questions nothing I couldnt handle. Its what military intelligence professionals do on a daily basis.

But this kid with zero life experience except going to some fancy college had the balls to say this: We just dont think you have the skills that match our projects.

I almost leapt out of my chair. But instead I sat still. He must have sensed that I was fuming as I could feel the skin on my own face rapidly rising in temperature. I got that frown that I get when Im real annoyed that something disappointing has happened. I sat there staring for a moment, boring a hole into his forehead as I narrowed my eyes. I continued to sit still, waiting to see what this kid was going to say next, waiting to see what possible explanation he or his organization had for their decision.

Here I was, a person with extraordinary life experience and with more than adequate skills to successfully complete these projects. The economy was in the toilet, everyone needed to help out to rebuild it, and I was offering my services for free. And these people were going to turn me away? They were going to let me walk just like that? In that fashion, We just dont think you have the skills that match our projects.

The college kid continued, We have based this decision on strict skills and professional experience requirements for each of our volunteer roles, which are derived from our project blueprints.

And there it was, the other frustration of my job search raising its ugly head: the direct experience nonsense. I have found that in this bad economy employers are so hung up on direct experience that theyre unwilling to take a risk on someone with a different, outside perspective, even if their skills are perfectly transferable.

How many times in my military experience did I find myself in situations where I was brand new to a job? In eight years I had seven jobs, each one being pretty different from the previous one. For each job I was forced to learn fast as I hit the ground running. I had no choice. I was placed in those jobs based on needs of the Air Force. The Air Force assumed that as an officer of a certain rank with a certain career field code, I had all the necessary training and experience to accomplish the task, whatever it may be.

Project blueprints? But I think my skills and experience are perfectly transferableDo you always go by those blueprints? Can I see them?

Look, Im just following my boss guidance.

Yeah, yeah, yeah I know all about it. Youre just doing what youre told. God forbid anyone in this country would step out of their comfort zone in order to make a tough decision, let alone take responsibility for anything.

But instead of pursuing the issue further, I quietly put my resume back into my folder, politely thanked the recent college graduate for his time and his organizations consideration, and left.

And they let me walk just like that.

Christian Knierim ended his unemployment by starting his own computer repair business, which is doing well.


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