The Veterans’ Jobless Crisis That Isn’t

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Mario Tama / Getty Images

Unemployed veterans seeking work at a 2009 jobs fair in New York City.

The national commander of AMVETS was indignant. “The problem of veteran unemployment,” Cleve Geer told NBC News on Friday, “should be seen as a national disgrace.”

Just over a week earlier, Paul Rieckhoff, of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, had referred to an “unacceptably high veteran unemployment rate.” And the website of the House Veterans Affairs Committee now talks of “solving the veteran unemployment crisis.”

The problem with this shared narrative is that there is, in fact, no crisis. It’s an exaggeration, at best.

The reality is that veterans are more likely to be employed than non-veterans. This is indisputable.

Historically, veterans have enjoyed higher rates of employment than the general public. Military service is such an advantage that, since 2006, the veteran unemployment rate has averaged a full percentage point below the national unemployment rate. As the chart demonstrates, veteran unemployment has been lower than the national rate in 79 of the last 82 months—while following roughly the same track.

bf,chart1

Friedman

Not only is the veteran unemployment rate lower than the national average, but perhaps even more significant is the fact that it’s trending distinctly downward—which is reflective of today’s recovering national economy.

By any empirical measure, there is no overall unemployment crisis among America’s veterans. They’re doing quite well—and better than their non-veteran peers.

Of course, that’s not the end of the story. To be certain, the employment situation for America’s newest veterans is more precarious. At 9.9% in 2012, the post-9/11 veteran unemployment rate still exceeds the national average. (Although it, too, is on the way down).

For many of us who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, this seems inexplicable. At least it did to me.

Armed with “down-range” management experience, I assumed I’d have little trouble finding work after completing a master’s degree in 2006.

Instead, I spent 11 months unemployed, trying desperately to hold on to my dignity. Medals—awarded for leading dozens of 101st Airborne Division soldiers in combat—sat in a drawer next to my bed, worth nothing as I sent out resume after resume.

As I tried to convince recruiters that I was qualified—that my experience mattered—my checking account ran dry.

Eventually, I was offered a short-term contract with a nonprofit. They offered me significantly less than I’d been making in the Army, but I was grateful and took it.

What I didn’t realize at the time—and what many don’t realize today—is that this difficult transition isn’t out of the ordinary for new veterans. To understand the reality of the situation, we have to get past the hyperbole in the media and look to what’s actually happening.

First, the unemployment rate among post-9/11 veterans is distributed unevenly. The elevated rate is driven largely by a single age group experiencing very high unemployment: those ages 18 to 24. For veterans in that age group, the average unemployment rate last year was 20.4%. In 2011, it was 30.2%.

By contrast, the rate among older Iraq and Afghanistan veterans is actually comparable to other veterans. For example, post-9/11 veterans between the ages of 45 and 54 have an unemployment rate of just 2.4%.

That’s why it’s so important to isolate the issue.

Of course, this raises the question: why is the unemployment rate for 18- to 24-year-old veterans so high?

Empirical data is limited, but common sense leads us to surmise that this is a demographic which recently left one job in search of, in many cases, a radically different career. It’s also a demographic with less education and civilian work experience. So it stands to reason that any such cohort would be immediately less employable.

If thousands of medical doctors suddenly quit practicing after four years and attempted to enter the job market in unrelated fields, how much luck would they initially have?

Thus, for many veterans whose skill sets don’t translate easily, making such a transition can require additional education, training, or both. And that takes time.

A single, often overlooked, chart explains the dynamic at work.

bf,chart2

BLS

Using data compiled between 1998 and 2008, the chart illustrates that, among veterans ages 18 and 24, the average unemployment rate is highest immediately upon separation from the military. And that rate drops precipitously over the next two years.

For example, during the measured decade, veterans who were within one month of separation had an unemployment rate of nearly 24%. For those who’d been separated for at least a year, the rate dropped to 8.7%. And for those two years post-separation, the unemployment rate had fallen to 5.6%.

It’s a natural curve that veterans experience when they leave the military—which most do in their early 20s. They separate with few civilian qualifications, gain them over the course of several years, and then most find jobs within one or two years.

It’s not a crisis. It’s not “unacceptably high.” And it’s certainly not a “national disgrace”—especially given the state of the U.S. economy since 2008. It’s just a naturally rough re-entry.

So what should we be doing to make this re-entry as smooth as possible?

First, the rhetoric should be toned down. This is a manageable process, not a crisis—and it should be treated as such in the media.

Second, we need to better manage the expectations of separating service members. Rather than conditioning them to think they’re entitled to a job upon separation, regardless of their skill set—and rather than guilt-tripping companies into hiring them—we should shift to a more granular focus.

The current resource investment toward finding each veteran a job should be limited to those who are most qualified. When a veteran has an easily transferable job (like a logistics specialist), and that veteran wants to work immediately, then we should work to place that veteran immediately.

For those with less transferable skills (like artillerymen), we should stress training and education—not jobs. This should take place from initial entry through the active duty transition process.

Saying, as President Obama has, that “no veteran should have to fight for a job at home after they fight for our nation overseas” is well-intentioned. But it also creates a false sense of entitlement among inexperienced veterans which can work against the very companies who would hire them.

Infantrymen who’ve spent years learning to shoot and maneuver shouldn’t be surprised when they find themselves on a difficult, time-consuming route to civilian success. They have to accept that they’re behind their civilian peers professionally. In effect, it’s part of the sacrifice they signed up for in the first place. And we need to make sure that troops understand that up front—when they first enter the service.

Lastly, veteran and government organizations shouldn’t let up in their efforts to encourage businesses to hire qualified veterans. While many organizations go overboard in characterizing the employment situation, they are more often correct when they stick to fighting stigmas about post-traumatic stress—and convincing companies that veterans make great employees.

As callous as it may sound to some, we don’t owe all veterans jobs when they leave the service. What we owe every veteran is the education and training that will allow them to find jobs—whether it’s certification as an electrician or an electrical engineering degree through the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

When it comes to employment, being a veteran is a long-term advantage. We just need to ensure that everyone—to include troops, veterans, nonprofits, government agencies, and employers—understands that the road from Bagram to the board room is often challenging to navigate.

We should make it easier for veterans by helping them to navigate it with proper planning—and not with dire pronouncements or inflated expectations about the job market.

Brandon Friedman is a vice president at Fleishman-Hillard in Washington, D.C. and the author of The War I Always Wanted. From 2009 to 2012, he worked at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Follow him on Twitter at @BFriedmanDC.

18 comments
EvanC
EvanC

I served in the US Navy between 2004-2008. I have been struggling with unemployment and trying to go back to school after the VA wrongfully denied me my GI Bill benefits due to an error on my DD214. I have been off and on homeless ever since I was discharged, my family losing their home and business several times. I still can't get the VA to process my PTSD claim a year after the fact. All of this is exacerbated by the fact that employers don't want to hire you if they see a DD214. They see you as a problem hire, often under qualified for the position applied for, and unable to take tasking. This is almost never true, most soldiers/sailors/airmen are great workers, but are not being given a chance to be successful after enduring the most intense volunteer work the nation has to offer.

JacobKaliszewski
JacobKaliszewski

I served as an infantryman in Iraq and Afghanistan. I graduated with a 3.8 GPA from the University of Arizona's business school. After applying to hundreds of jobs, I finally took a construction job that only required a GED. However, after I finished the construction project, I was laid off along with 15 other employees. Now, I'am back to looking for work again. There really isn't a good resource to help veterans find jobs. I have tried the Veterans Affairs employment offices and state-funded employment resources. Check out my Linked-In profile: Jacob Kaliszewski.

NiccolaDeVereaux
NiccolaDeVereaux

Statistics are "educated" guesses and the problem with that is that they are still just guesses. The reality is that veterans like many americans are faced with unemployment or underemployment. Businesses both small and large are concerned with the bottom line, profit and overhead. This is of great concern to me as I am a veteran with an honorable discharge and a college degree, I am also unemployed. The only jobs I can find are around 20hr. per week for minimum wage. A whopping 700 bucks a month before taxes. This Mr. Friedman was an army officer so I am not surprised he has bad intel. 

MarieE.Pollnow
MarieE.Pollnow

There is no truth to this article.  I am a veteran.  I have been looking for work for over two years.  I am educated; it means nothing just like my five years of honorable service mean nothing to our government or my country.

andreslazo
andreslazo

@BrandonFriedman

Mr. Friedman,

Your statistics are comparing apples to oranges. Overall unemployment rates are declining, even among people with veteran status in the United States. No one is debating this fact, we are focusing on our young post-9/11 military veterans who are in trouble.

38.0% unemployment rate among "young post-9/11 veterans is more than twice as high as their nonveteran counterparts. About 60% of the young post-9/11 veterans, ages 20-24, have been unemployed for more than five weeks.” -The Employment Situation of Veterans – February 2013 (IVMF)

The crisis is that for veterans from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, the war is far from over. They are at risk for depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and destructive addictions. The unemployment rates are just the tip of the iceberg. Leaders who can identify with these realities will have a better appreciation of the current situation for military veterans and their families.

The ground truth of boots on the ground: our youngest veterans are dying, their families are suffering, and we Americans can do more to bring them all home.

http://nation.time.com/2013/03/22/the-ground-truth-about-veterans-unemployment/

Andres F. Lazo

ewhulbert
ewhulbert

Brandon, your piece make some serious errors in your use of statistics to incorrectly determine a problem is not real.  As @andreslazo said, the idea of overall veteran unemployment is not the issue, it is the recently separated veterans, specifically the young ones who are having the most problems.  I wrote  a blog where I use show how the problem among young vets is actually much worse than your stats seem to imply.    

http://ewhulbert.blogspot.com/2013/03/the-veterans-jobless-crisis.html

Thank you for your service Brandon, but I wish you had never written this.  

CarolWalton
CarolWalton

How are these unemployed Veterans tracked and where does the data come from?  My guess is that the data is compiled from unemployment recipient records.  How do you account for those Veterans that are retired, receiving VA disability compensation, exhausted their unemployment compensation?  I think if you tracked that demographic of Veteran you will see that there are many out there that are unemployed or underemployed.   

Cowboypicayune
Cowboypicayune

This is really a fascinating piece of post-sequestration propaganda. 

Want proof? Okay...

According to latest BLS data -- the same source Friedman cites in his piece -- (to say nothing of other main stream sources and the peer-reviewed literature) -- here are the current "official" unemployment rates for statistically significant veteran subgroup groups as well as their populations. You do the math

Veteran unemployment rate by group & total subgroup population 

Gulf War II:

Female Veterans

  11.6%/547,000 (Feb., 2013, BLS)

National Guard/Reservist Veterans

    20%-21%/865,000

Care to estimate, Mr. Friedman, how many total unemployed, post-9/11 veterans under 50 years of age makeup just these two subgroups? This is just the tip of the iceberg.

http://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.t05.htm

http://articles.latimes.com/2012/nov/23/local/la-me-national-guard-employment-20121124

My work is 'almost' done here.

--Cowboypicayune

combattocorp
combattocorp

This is a great topic to be discussed with a poor (and misleading use of data) that does not address the problem of younger Gulf War II veteran unemployment and under employment.  The most recent, and one of the best, studies of this problem was done by the Chicago Fed and the Center for New American Security.  The unemployment problem is real for younger veterans - there is no need to discuss if it exists.  The point of discussion is what needs to be done.  The crucial and unfulfilled requirements exists in three areas:  (1) More needs to be done to encourage veterans to receive a BA degree in a competitive and high demand field. (2) Veterans need to know how to understand, translate, and apply military skills to business problems and serve as "solutions" to their employers. (3) Veterans need to know how to fit and move from a military culture to a corporate culture that supports the success and operations of their new employer.  This article serves to confuse an issue that the (relevant) data and a great many studies have already agreed upon.  We need more discussions of solutions and programs to make recent Gulf War II veterans relevant, engaged, and the future business leaders of the country.

Chad Storlie, Author, Combat Leader to Corporate Leader, www.CombatToCorporate.com

ValueOfaVeteran
ValueOfaVeteran

Another point to consider is that our youngest veterans have known nothing but war, long deployments and short periods at home before deploying again. When they leave the military, they are beyond burnt out and need time to decompress, return back to where their support system is and reconnect with family and friends. The DoD pays unemployment and the TAP classes teach transitioning military members how to file for it. So a contributing factor to high unemployment is that they need a break and unemployment benefits will cover them for a period of time. What the veteran does not realize or fully appreciate (and TAP does not emphasize) is that employers consider being unemployed for a long period of time to be a discriminator.

Even veterans with occupational skills that are a very close equivalent to those required for civilian positions still struggle to assemble a resume that speaks to those skills in plain English. They also tend to leave off or don't emphasize enough the transferrable skills they have such as operations experience, leadership, problem solving skills, etc. This is what we owe our service members when they transition - solid advice and assistance on packaging their experience and how to network to find a job.

Lisa Rosser

CEO and Founder

The Value Of a Veteran

(and 22 year veteran of US Army)

andreslazo
andreslazo

Mr. Friedman,

I respectfully disagree with you on the issue of veteran unemployment and the current challenges facing our youngest Gulf War era II veterans (Post 9/11 veterans). Veteran joblessness is a crisis, it is unacceptably high and it is a national disgrace.

I believe we can all contribute to this debate by empathizing with the youngest soldiers (and now veterans) to understand the reality of the situation. I agree with IAVA founder Paul Rieckhoff, when he says that "veterans aren't a charity, they are an investment," and so we should have the highest expectations by expanding the opportunities available for their futures.

By your own admission, you assumed that you would “have little trouble finding work after completing a master’s degree in 2006." You also point to overall estimates for the unemployment rate, then isolate the issue by focusing on the age category of 18 to 24. You reference Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) annual rates from 2011 and 2012, and finally leave an interpretation to your reader about a "dynamic at work" from "data compiled between 1998 and 2008."

I disagree with your example of veterans ages “45 to 54 [who] have an unemployment rate of just 2.4%" which misses the mark when capturing a growing demographic of veterans mostly made up of young enlisted soldiers.

Syracuse University, Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) recently published "The Employment Situation of Veterans" which cites data collected by the U.S. Department of Labor, BLS for February 2012, January 2013, and the most current month surveyed of February 2013. I encourage everyone to read their excellent one-page summary that highlights the current overall situation and focuses on the trend among veterans ages 18 to 24 at: http://vets.syr.edu

I believe that our youngest veterans (ages 18 to 24), from my own personal experience under the Post 9/11 GI Bill, are pursuing a bachelor’s degree or an associate degree upon initially leaving their military service.You make a strong case for translating relevant military skills directly to jobs but you fall short by not identifying with the veterans who are “distributed unevenly” in these core demographics. I also believe that this important demographic faces transition challenges that may extend beyond the scope of "naturally rough reentry" or even frictional unemployment when they try to tackle new social relationships, the backlog of VA benefit processing and claims, physical injuries, combat trauma, PTSD, TBI as well as the societal challenges of addiction, domestic violence, and suicide.

My opinion on this deeply personal debate for our transitioning military families is rooted in a quote that is repeated in the values of leaders whom I have followed overseas and here at home: “take care of your Soldiers, and they will take care of you." We cannot ignore a precarious and rapidly growing population of our citizens who are coming back home expecting appreciation for their dedicated service and looking toward our leaders for growing opportunities in a country they love dearly.

Sincerely,

Andres F. Lazo

U.S. Army, 2004-2009

Operation Iraqi Freedom (2006-2007)

LarryHolman
LarryHolman

I am wondering if the author or his firm was paid anything for writing this piece.  It is only reasonable to expect veterans unemployment rate to be lower than that of the general population.  Part of the explanation is that the military has already done a rather rigorous screening.  Only about 30 percent of those who meet age and gender criteria are actually allowed to join the military because they fail to meet other criteria, such as education and intelligence, physical fitness, moral and social standards, etc.  However, the fact that veterans are taking their own lives at the rate of 22 per day is itself a crisis and to the extent that veteran unemployment may play any role in that makes unemployment among veterans a crisis.

KevinOBrien
KevinOBrien

Thank You, Thank You, Thank You Brandon. It is about time someone spoke the truth regardingthe true unempliyment situation as itrelates to veterans. The doom and gloom painted by many mentioned above in my opinion only further causes question and concern by employers over "what is wrong with veterans" and that ultimately hurts their opportunities. This is extremely well written, spot on, and I will be circulating everhwhere I can.

consultrwd
consultrwd

This is a great article that needed written. Most people just don't understand the issue

BarbaraPflughaupt
BarbaraPflughaupt

Important and terrific story - and the April 2012 cover story of G.I. Jobs magazine made these points as well - turning down the rhetoric in many respects is important and I am sharing this story throughout social media.

redeye80
redeye80

@BrandonFriedman @LarryHolman It's called being a paid hack. If you don't understand that, I can't help you. In terms of your unemployed experience, it seems you as well as many other veterans really don't understand how to find a job. Just sending out resumes will only get you disappointment. Developing a network of people you can help and who will help you is the key component to a job search and a career. When I left active duty, TAP was simply a joke.

LarryHolman
LarryHolman

@BrandonFriedman @LarryHolman I think the balance of my comment makes it clear why I would think there might be some kind of agenda involved.  I am relieved to know that probably is not the case.  Because of the consequences that result from veteran unemployment, any level of unemployment among that population remains a crisis, at least to my way of thinking.  This is more that just simple data, especially when the data regarding those consequences is not taken into account.

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