The Ground Truth on Veterans’ Unemployment

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Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

Army Col. Shawn Phelps seeks work at a Los Angeles job fair Mar. 20 as he prepares to leave the service.

Have you heard the good news?

Turns out the veterans’ employment crisis is over, or didn’t happen, or really isn’t that bad…either way, there’s nothing to see here. Let’s just forget the record high new veteran unemployment over the last few years or the fact that it’s still on average two points higher than the national average.

Overall, it’s true; the unemployment numbers are getting better for everyone. But better isn’t good enough. No matter how you spin it, the truth remains that for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, the unemployment rate is unacceptable.

You could argue that the new veteran unemployment rate is high because they are a younger demographic, and young people tend to have more trouble finding a job across the board. That’s an interesting point, but the rate for new young veterans is still worse than the rates of young non-veterans.

For new veterans aged 18-24, the unemployment rate averaged 20.4% in 2012, more than five percentage points higher than the average among non-veterans aged 18-24. Beyond the numbers, critics fail to acknowledge that while of the same age, young veterans are entering the workforce with far more skills and experience than their civilian peers. Logically, they should be employed at higher rates, not lower.

But what about older veterans? An article last week here on Battleland indicated that the new veteran employment situation improved with age, noting, for instance, that the unemployment rate for new veterans aged 45-54 was merely 2.4%. At best, this is an incomplete understanding of the new veteran employment situation. At worst, it’s a complete mischaracterization of the facts.

This 2.4% statistic comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ monthly release for February 2013. These monthly rates, particularly in sliced into demographic subsets, are prone to wild swings from month to month because they are drawn from small survey samples. For instance, the rate among this same group was 7.5% in January of 2013, just one month before. In December 2012, it was 10%. Using the 2.4% statistic to indicate success for the 45-54 age group is misleading.

The annual numbers, based on a much larger sample size, are more reliable.

So, let’s take a look. In 2012, the unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans between the ages of 45 and 54 was 7.7%, more than a percentage point higher than the average among non-veterans between 45 and 54, which was 6.2%. No matter how you cut the data, the fact remains that despite the technical, leadership and entrepreneurial skills a veteran gains in service, today’s generation of veterans is facing unemployment rates higher on average than their civilian peers.

A period of unemployment could seem like a natural part of the transition from military service to a civilian career.

In January of 2013, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America surveyed our membership. In that snapshot of over 4,000 new vets, 16% said that they were unemployed. Of our members that are unemployed, 33.8% have been unemployed for longer than a year. More than 17% have been unemployed for more than two years. These data seem to indicate that the unemployment problem is about more than a period of transition to rest and spend time with family.

Although the numbers are bad, they don’t tell the whole story. The real problem lies in the systemic challenges that cause higher rates of unemployment for our veterans.

Today’s business leaders don’t understand the value that veterans bring to the table.

This is one of the first generations of business leaders that largely didn’t serve in the military, which poses real cultural barriers to understanding military skills and experience. In a June 2012 report, the Center for a New American Security noted that one of the main barriers to hiring veterans, from the perspective of businesses, is that they struggle to understand how military skills translate to increasing the bottom line.

This CNAS finding mirrors what our members tell us about their experience. In a 2012 survey of new veterans with Prudential, Inc. 60% of veterans reported that translating their military service to the civilian job market was a significant challenge.

In addition, there remain legal barriers that prevent veterans from doing the work that they did in the military. Many veterans return home ready to continue the jobs that they did in the military in the civilian sector, only to find that they need to re-train to do the job they’ve been doing, in order to meet the requirements for a civilian license or certification. While Congress and local officials have been working to break this barrier, it still remains a significant challenge to veteran employment today in many sectors.

Some veterans leave the military with unrealistic expectations of their prospects in the job market. Our study with Prudential revealed that just 66% of new veterans received employment resources during their transition. This situation is improving thanks to a restructuring of the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) and new laws that make TAP mandatory for all units.

This week, on the 10th anniversary of the war in Iraq, IAVA is Storming the Hill. In addition to calling for an end to the VA backlog, we are asking Congress to pass a bill from Rep. Bill Flores, R-Texas, that standardizes TAP and ensures that all service members can take advantage of specialized training in employment and entrepreneurship.

Is veteran employment in a better place than it was two years ago? Yes. Hard work by Congress, the veteran community, the Administration and the private sector is starting to pay off. But, better isn’t great. Until we address these systemic problems, our veterans are still one economic downturn away from returning to record high unemployment.

Tom Tarantino left the Army as a captain in 2007 after a decade in uniform, including a combat tour in Iraq. He is the chief policy officer at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.