'Helmets To Hardhats'

Historically, when Americans have returned from war, they've been welcomed by employers who saw veterans as likely to be solid, reliable workers. But lately, that's changed: More than 15 percent of young vets are out of work — double the rate for all 20-to-24 year olds.

An organization called "Helmets to Hardhats" is stepping up to help, reports CBS News correspondent Cynthia Bowers.

These days Eric Hickerson works as a carpenter in San Diego. But it wasn't so long ago that he earned his living in a much different way.

Hickerson joined the Marines in 1999 straight out of high school. He made sergeant and did two combat tours in Iraq. But none of that seemed to matter much when, at 24 and newly married, he left the Corps only to spend months trying to land a decent job.

"When I go for a job, they look at me as being trained to shoot a weapon," Eric says. "I was kind of left with my hands open not knowing where to go."

Was that scary?

"It was a little frustrating, for sure," he says. "It definitely was a lot harder than I expected it to be."

How hard is it? For soldiers like Hickerson, who leave the military when they're between 20 and 24, the unemployment rate is twice the national average.

Bowers asked Eric what sort of handicaps soldiers face when they come back.

"All the other individuals that they went to high school with have been in their careers now for four years or have gone to college," he says. "We come back and we understand what it takes to get a job done — but we don't understand what it takes to get that job."

Sen. Barak Obama's home state of Illinois has the highest rate of unemployed veterans in the country.

"We are not putting our money where our mouth is," Obama says. "That we say we value our veterans, we believe in their service. But when push comes to shove, we're not following through — and I think that's got to change."

Retired Marine Major Gen. Matthew Caulfield says that "following through" for soldiers is what his program "Helmets to Hardhats" is all about.

"The problem is they can't network," Caulfield says. "How do you network from Iraq when you're trying to stay alive and keep your buddies alive? What our program is all about — we do the networking."

Since 2003, his organization has referred 40,000 young vets to high-paying union construction jobs that come with benefits. Just last week, California became the 22nd state to promise that returning soldiers will get first crack at those jobs.

"Construction is wonderful, because whatever you make lasts," Hickerson says.

With help, he's now building a foundation — not just on the job, but for the rest of his life.

  • Stephen Smith

    Stephen Smith is a senior editor for CBSNews.com