“So you’re not planning on going back into government?” The question came from an executive at a prominent consulting firm, but I (Michael) had heard it often before. At networking events in industries ranging from consulting to media to publishing, rare is the occasion that I’m not asked some variation when I bring up my service as a surface warfare officer in the Navy.
As my brother Mark and I prepare to transition back into the civilian workforce – myself after a stint in graduate school, Mark after four years service as an infantry officer – we find ourselves confronting the same conundrum tens of thousands of veterans face as they exit the military: Is the effort spent securing a private-sector job worth it when it is the government and government-related firms that place the highest premium on military service?
A recent survey by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America found that, of the 4,278 members who participated, 37% currently work for the government, a number more than quadruple the second-largest industry listed (health care and pharmaceuticals at 8%). It is also more than twice the national average of 16%.
These numbers alone would not be much cause for concern. That those who serve in the military would have a predisposition to continue in public service is not surprising, particularly considering the advantages veterans are given in the government hiring process.
Far more troubling, though, is that only 27% would ideally work for the government. Or put another way, a minimum of 171 of those surveyed find themselves working for the government when they’d rather be working somewhere else. Provided the survey is a representative sample, the problem becomes even more stark: nearly 100,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans currently working for the government would prefer to work in some other industry.
This reality is reflected among our military and veteran friends, where a common refrain runs something like, “I’d love to work in Industry X but only the public sector attaches much value to my service.” Why fight for a private sector job, the reasoning goes, when the track into government-related work offers such an easier route?
My brother and I have experienced this as well. We both intend to pursue careers in media and often find ourselves scrambling to explain the reasoning behind our military service, or its applicability to the job we’re exploring. Thankfully, we’re not easily deterred and don’t mind paying our dues, even if it means we will be working alongside other new entrants fresh out of college. But many veterans are intimidated by these hurdles, and so choose a government-sector job where they can expect reasonable pay, good benefits, and don’t find themselves at the bottom rung of the ladder.
This problem is only exacerbated by the current economic situation in which veterans have to compete against dozens or hundreds of more-qualified civilian candidates in industries that have seen their veteran populations dwindle over the last three decades.
It wasn’t always this way. Following the World Wars and the Vietnam War returning veterans encountered a civilian marketplace that viewed service as a normal, and temporary, line of work for millions. Officer or enlisted, wartime service was a short detour on the road to civilian employment in whatever industry struck their fancy, be it government-related or otherwise. This was facilitated by the fact that every industry in the country – from real estate to public relations to marketing to finance to construction – had a healthy veteran population by dint of a draft that drew from all segments of society.
The professionalization of the armed services has altered the dynamic. Over the last 30 years the voluntary nature of service has molded the military into a smaller force with less turnover, and which draws most of its recruits from a narrowing demographic pool. As a result, fewer veterans are released into the workforce, and fewer civilian employers have experience working with and hiring veterans. This has created a feedback loop that has seen more and more veterans gravitate toward “veteran friendly” industries that value their skills and service. These, more often than not, are government-related.
The consequences of this gap are far-reaching for all involved.
For the over 1 million veterans who will be leaving service between now and 2016, they will confront a civilian job market populated by employers with little experience working with veterans or familiar with their skills. And those veterans looking to travel the well-trod path into government will find a sector in the midst of budget freezes and downsizing.
Military recruitment could also be affected, as those young men and women looking to enter non-government-related industries could be dissuaded from undertaking military service since such service might limit or hinder their post-service career options.
We live in a society where the military consists of only 1 percent of the population. As military service constricts to a smaller and smaller cross-section of that society, the avenues of opportunity for post-military employment will continue to narrow unless all industries take a proactive approach to hiring veterans.
Many corporations like J.P. Morgan, NBC Universal, Chevron, and Microsoft, as well as trade unions like the Writer’s Guild of America, have introduced veterans outreach and hiring initiatives. Corporations that have yet to do so need to follow their lead. It will be programs like these, more than government tax incentives, that ensure veterans have the opportunity to enter the field of their choosing. Government industries should not be alone in recognizing the value of service.
Michael Larson is a former Navy officer and currently a graduate student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Mark Larson is a serving infantry officer with 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment and has been deployed to Afghanistan.
 This number is a minimum since it assumes everyone who ideally wants to work for the government is working in that job. The number is derived as such: 40 percent of the 4278 surveyed (1711) were employed full-time in a civilian job and 10 percent of that number represents the discrepancy between real/ideal categories.