Monday, April 16, 2012

VCS Special Commentary: A Closer Look at Veterans Unemployment


This article originally appeared on Veterans for Common Sense on 5 April 2012.

Unemployment among veterans remains above the national average by many measures, sometimes doubling or tripling it in certain categories. The fact that veterans are struggling to find employment is one of the few points Congress and President Obama agree and have taken some positive action on. Strangely, there seems to be bipartisan agreement among both the House and Senate Veteran’s Affairs committees that America will have to meet growing demand and continuing issues with a flat budget for the Department of Veteran’s Affairs. Despite positive veteran employment efforts by some private firms, the private sector continues to be an unfriendly place for vets. Despite some good faith efforts by both the government and private employers, it is clear that veterans are continuing to struggle to find employment.

A problem in the debate is that there is disagreement upon what the unemployment rate among veterans actually is. The answer to the question also depends upon who one includes. America has vets stretching back to the WWII era. Data shows that employment among veterans of the first Gulf War era and earlier is roughly equivalent with their non-veteran counterparts. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the rate among all vets in 2011 was 8.3%, on par with the current national average. But among vets serving since 9/11 to today the rate was 12%, higher than the national average. The worst statistic to come out was that unemployment among post-9/11 vets aged between 18 and 24 was at 29%, 12% more than the non-veteran average for the same age group.

The Department of Veterans Affairs argues that veteran unemployment has been trending down since 2010, but it is still higher than average. The numbers tend to indicate that the youngest of our newest generation of veterans are struggling hardest to find work. These are men and women that have four to six years of service under their belt, may still be serving in the Reserves, and likely have one or more combat deployments. Their non-veteran civilian counterparts are struggling to find work as well; their unemployment rate was at 17%. Most of this group are high school grads, many are recent college grads.

That is a tough demographic to be a part of since the 2008 downturn. But that veterans, all at least high school grads and many with college, with four to six years of military work experience under their belt should experience a rate over 12% above average exposes a real problem. When they do find employment, there’s a one in four chance it’s a government job, a rate twice that among non-veterans. There is also a one in four chance they have a service-connected disability.

Things get a little better with age. Post-9/11 vets aged 25 to 35 experienced 13% unemployment in 2011, half that their younger compatriots, but still 4% more than their non-veteran counterparts of the same age group. This suggests that after a few years of settling back into civilian life, many veterans have been able to find employment. However, the number of those that continue to struggle to find a job is higher than average and is happening at a time when the U.S. economy is still struggling. There is general agreement the economy is improving and hopefully veteran employment statistics and outlooks will improve with it.

But why does this disparity exist? Some suggest that the economic downturn cuts jobs in industries returning veterans are most likely to work in. These tend to be entry level jobs or blue-collar jobs, categories where there has been the greatest retraction in positions. Most servicemembers also tend to come from areas of the country where the shift in the global economy has emptied factories or office towers.

But it would also seem that there continues to be the view in many industries that four to eight years in the military and skills and experience earned while serving doesn’t equate to experience in the private sector. It is, essentially, a black hole on a resume. Many private sector employers will not recognize years of military service as a qualification. It is an unknown quantity for many of them. Only around 2-3% of Americans ever served in the military. Contrast this with the almost universal American experience of high school, college for some and training for others, then getting a job. A private sector employer is unable to quantify something they do not understand.

For many employers, our newest generation of veterans comes from another planet, another style of life they do not understand and haven’t experienced. No amount of resume classes given by the military before separation or by unemployment offices afterwards will be able to overcome the inability of many non-veteran employers to determine if the veteran applicant before them is qualified for the job. For many, the resume might as well come from another country.

In order to really address the problem of unemployment among veterans, especially for more jobs in the private sector, there must be a concerted national effort to recognize the skills and experience veterans have after serving. The military today is a different one from those even other vets joined in the 1980’s. Today America has an all-volunteer force that is driven by Noncommissioned Officers, just as much as it is Commissioned Officers. Soldiers and Sailors today are not sitting around peeling potatoes like in black and white movies. America’s leaner, more professional military is the most technologically advanced and the most experienced since WWII.

The combat veteran former-Sergeant who used to lead convoys in Baghdad is qualified to manage the lawn and garden department. The Senior Airman who unloaded Medevac helicopters in Kandahar can be your receptionist. The Petty Officer who ran a communications station in Kuwait can lead a cable installation team. The Lance Corporal who set up fighting positions in Al-Anbar can push a construction crew. Veterans didn’t let the country down while in uniform. We shouldn’t let them down when they come home and need a job.