One Thing That Is Going Right for Veterans

More Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are finding jobs, but the unemployment rate could easily creep back up as more soldiers come home.

National Journal
Jordain Carney
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Jordain Carney
June 22, 2014, 6:08 a.m.

Every day seems to bring more bad news for vet­er­ans. But amid the ever-grow­ing scan­dal at the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment, there is one thing go­ing right: Many more vet­er­ans are get­ting jobs.

The un­em­ploy­ment rate for Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan vet­er­ans, which now stands at 5.3 per­cent, is at its low­est point in nearly six years. Un­em­ploy­ment levels for these new­er vet­er­ans peaked at 15.2 per­cent in 2011.

And this fol­lows a lar­ger trend with­in the over­all vets pop­u­la­tion. Un­em­ploy­ment rates for all vet­er­ans dropped to 5 per­cent in May, down from a peak of 9.8 per­cent in 2011, ac­cord­ing to the Bur­eau of Labor Stat­ist­ics.

“It’s im­port­ant to re­cog­nize this con­tinu­ing down­ward trend for vets over­all, and par­tic­u­larly for post-9/11 vets,” said Jac­queline Maf­fucci, the re­search dir­ect­or for the Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan Vet­er­ans of Amer­ica ad­vocacy group. “But we also can’t de­clare vic­tory just yet.”

A key reas­on for the dra­mat­ic im­prove­ment is that non­profits have poured more re­sources in­to job pro­grams for vet­er­ans. The ef­forts in­clude help­ing vet­er­ans find work that matches their skills and teach­ing them to trans­late their mil­it­ary ex­per­i­ence in­to ci­vil­ian-friendly terms on their résumés.

“All of these hir­ing pro­grams have worked to some de­gree. … They res­ult in the hir­ing of tens of thou­sands, if not hun­dreds of thou­sands, of these men and wo­men,” said Phil­lip Carter, a seni­or fel­low at the Cen­ter for a New Amer­ic­an Se­cur­ity, a de­fense think tank.

Mean­while, dozens of com­pan­ies have teamed up to pledge more than 1 mil­lion jobs for vet­er­ans, in­clud­ing such ma­jor cor­por­a­tions as Wal-Mart Stores and JP­Mor­gan Chase.

But with more jobs pledged than there are un­em­ployed vet­er­ans from the Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan wars to fill them, why aren’t all of these vet­er­ans now in the work­force?

“There’s still not a per­fect fit between these jobs and the vet­er­ans seek­ing jobs. “¦ And there’s also a nat­ur­al level of un­em­ploy­ment and fric­tion in the trans­ition pro­cess that will al­ways be there,” Carter said.

Dan Golden­berg serves as ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or for the Call of Duty En­dow­ment, which of­fers fin­an­cial sup­port to job-place­ment pro­grams that help vet­er­ans find work. He de­scribes the is­sue of out-of-work vet­er­ans as a prob­lem of sup­ply and de­mand. The sup­ply side: Vet­er­ans have to be ready to join the ci­vil­ian job mar­ket. The de­mand? Ad­voc­ates worry there is a gap between well-in­ten­tioned CEOs pledging to bring more vet­er­ans on board and the per­son who makes the fi­nal hir­ing de­cision.

“They really struggle, be­cause the people pulling the trig­ger are hir­ing man­agers,” Golden­berg said. “”¦ [Hir­ing man­agers could won­der]: ‘Do they have enough of the right ex­per­i­ence, or [do they have] com­bat-re­lated bag­gage? This vet­er­an doesn’t look like the type of per­son I’m used to hir­ing.”¦ Now you’re ask­ing me to take on a pro­ject.’ That’s what we really worry about a lot, be­cause the stor­ies be­ing told about vet­er­ans are all about dam­aged goods.”

More than 80 per­cent of the 69 com­pan­ies sur­veyed by the Cen­ter for New Amer­ic­an Se­cur­ity in a 2012 study named two or more chal­lenges to hir­ing vet­er­ans. Al­most 60 per­cent poin­ted to chal­lenges trans­lat­ing mil­it­ary skills to a ci­vil­ian ca­reer as well as to a neg­at­ive per­cep­tion of vet­er­ans. Case in point: the flood of vet­er­an sui­cide and men­tal-health stor­ies that flooded me­dia after the Fort Hood shoot­ing.

“I think that our so­ci­ety has proven time and time again that ste­reo­types are dan­ger­ous and wrong and shouldn’t be ap­plied to a large group of people,” said Lauren Au­gustine, a le­gis­lat­ive as­so­ci­ate with the Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan Vet­er­ans of Amer­ica.

The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment has its own trans­ition as­sist­ance pro­gram, known as TAP, to help vet­er­ans ease back in­to the ci­vil­ian job mar­ket. But some ar­gue that TAP — an in­ter­agency part­ner­ship in­clud­ing the Labor, De­fense, and Vet­er­ans Af­fairs de­part­ments — doesn’t go far enough.

The latest it­er­a­tion of TAP — rolled out in fisc­al 2013 — is man­dat­ory for all sol­diers be­fore they leave the mil­it­ary. It in­cludes a three-day work­shop with the Labor De­part­ment in which sol­diers get tips for writ­ing a résumé and go­ing to a job in­ter­view.

Sol­diers also meet with the VA to dis­cuss po­ten­tial dis­ab­il­ity and edu­ca­tion be­ne­fits — in­clud­ing the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which helps vet­er­ans af­ford col­lege. And TAP re­quires ser­vice mem­bers to cre­ate a trans­ition plan, in which they must out­line a strategy to reach their goals after leav­ing the mil­it­ary.

But crit­ics say there is still more work that can be done to bet­ter pre­pare troops.

“The TAP pro­gram has made some mod­est im­prove­ments.”¦ It’s not as sig­ni­fic­ant as these jobs pledges and these pub­lic-private part­ner­ships,” Carter said. “”¦ The fun­da­ment­al flaw with TAP is that you can’t undo two years or four years or 20 years of the mil­it­ary with one week of Power­Point.”

The Pentagon could help sol­diers ad­just to work­ing in the ci­vil­ian world by al­low­ing great­er co­oper­a­tion with out­side or­gan­iz­a­tions be­fore they sep­ar­ate from the mil­it­ary, Carter said.

One ex­ample of this is at Joint Base Lewis-Mc­Chord near Ta­coma, Wash., where ser­vice mem­bers can en­roll in an ar­ray of ap­pren­tice­ship pro­grams across the coun­try as they pre­pare to leave the mil­it­ary.

And more in­ter­ac­tion with ci­vil­ians be­fore leav­ing the ser­vice could help bridge what vet­er­ans point to as a ci­vil­ian-mil­it­ary di­vide. It could also help them bal­ance their job ex­pect­a­tions.

Jim Reed, who spent 27 years in the Army be­fore re­tir­ing, said that he real­ized after get­ting out of the mil­it­ary that his seni­or­ity didn’t carry over in­to his ci­vil­ian job as a nurse an­es­thet­ist.

“I had as­cen­ded to kind of a mid­level man­age­ment sys­tem….Then I get out, and there is none of that without re­lo­cat­ing all over the place,” he said. “… That was a bit of a tough­er pill for me to swal­low.”

Des­pite the prom­ising re­cent drop in un­em­ploy­ment, vet­er­ans ad­voc­ates know they have to stay fo­cused on find­ing jobs for those re­turn­ing from ser­vice. They warn that vet­er­ans un­em­ploy­ment levels could eas­ily spike again, as the month-to-month un­em­ploy­ment num­bers for Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan have re­sembled something of a roller coast­er.

That worry is com­poun­ded by the surge in vet­er­ans that is com­ing with the draw­down in Afgh­anistan, with ap­prox­im­ately 20,000 troops be­ing pulled out by the end of the year. And more ser­vice mem­bers could be forced out the mil­it­ary due to budget cuts over the next five years as well.

“We’re really con­cerned about it,” Golden­berg said. “… The eco­nomy is now go­ing to see a dif­fer­ent kind of vet­er­an — one who had planned on a mil­it­ary ca­reer and — not through any fault of their own — is sud­denly on the job mar­ket.”

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