More Young Veterans Jobless

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Some reports are surfacing about worsening employment numbers for veterans. This report claims that among all veterans the unemployment rate is 13% but it’s nearly double that, 24%, for younger veterans.  No wonder the military is having no problem meeting its retention goals.

There are several programs run by the federal government to insure veterans get a leg up on federal jobs. And the White House has teamed up with some movers and shakers in the private sector to put veterans into 100,000 available jobs. Nonetheless, almost one in four of our youngest returning veterans are jobless.

I had a conversation at a let’s-fix-the-government type think-tank here in Washington last week during which one of the researchers asked me what I thought of veterans preference programs. You would think that the fact that I am job hunting right now (a fact unknown to the researcher) might have influenced my decision. But maybe not.

I said that sometimes I sensed a burgeoning culture of entitlement around service to country and wondered if it might occasionally tip the scales in favor of prior military service versus basic competence. In the wide-ranging conversation that followed, I added that I didn’t think any serious scale-tipping went on.

But every time I board an aircraft and hear that our military in uniform board first, or go to a baseball game and suffer through Lee Greenwood’s smarmy anthem “Proud to be an American” while the crowd offers a standing ovation to our brave service men and women, I wonder what’s going on.

With only 1% of Americans serving in the military it seems unlikely that it is the soldiers themselves who are driving this phenomenon. Nonetheless, a former enlisted Marine had a guest spot on Tom Ricks’s blog The Best Defense recently that excoriated the two Army Staff Sergeants who posted a video on YouTube ranting about paying extra baggage fees when returning from the war.

Now, before people flood the comments sections calling me unpatriotic and un-supportive of veterans, I am a veteran, I served for 25 years, including a combat tour in Afghanistan. I run a non-profit that supports veterans and spend much of my free time speaking on veterans’ health issues.  I also paid those extra baggage fees on my way to and home from Afghanistan. I didn’t whine about it, I simply got a receipt and I passed the cost on to the Army on my travel voucher.

But I digress.

We were talking about programs to put veterans into jobs. There are lots of skills that young (and even, ahem, middle-aged) service men and women garner in the military, leadership and followership premier among them. But significant technical and life skills, too. So it seems reasonable that some preference might be exercised in an employer’s search for talent. That’s partly why Congress and the Administration have set up these programs and standards. But are they working?

Sure, the economy stinks and lots of people are out of work. But when one group stands out so dramatically from the whole – the national unemployment rate was 9.2% in the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report – something is clearly wrong.

So while I don’t support a sense of entitlement and greatly appreciate the fact that so many Americans actually DO support the troops and veterans, I would also like to see the percentage of unemployed returning veterans drop to something around the national average pretty quickly. So rather than pushing the troops to the front of the boarding line and inflicting the equivalent of a rain delay on the crowd at the baseball game, how about the government sorting out what programs might actually work better than the current preference systems? And how about employers at all levels make a little more effort to hire returning veterans? What about creating more job skills development programs – sort of paid internships for grown-ups? And we should all, as individuals and communities, look around us a bit more often to take account of those young men and women who make up that staggering 24% unemployed?

And while we’re at it, let’s stop all of this ridiculous standing and placing hands over hearts for “God Bless America” at baseball games. There is only one National Anthem and it alone merits (by law) those honors.