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The Real Story Behind Veteran Unemployment Rates: Perception vs. Reality

Chris Volk isn’t the kind of Soldier you usually see on TV. The 26-year-old Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran served in a combat zone, fixing HVAC equipment in a maintenance battalion. Volk used his education benefits when he left the Army to earn an associate degree, then landed an apprenticeship with Ameren Illinois, a subsidiary of Ameren Corporation. In June he’ll move up to gas utility journeyman – a good job with good benefits.

There’s nothing sensational about Volk’s success story. He’s not recovering from combat wounds, he’s not suffering from PTSD, he’s not homeless and he’s not coping with TBI. Volk made a smooth transition to civilian life, but stories like his don’t get much attention.

Yet Volk represents the vast majority of America’s veterans – including the 2 million who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their stories of success transitioning from the military to companies and campuses have been told in every issue of G.I. Jobs magazine for the past 10 years. You’ll find them on the covers, you’ll find them on the pages inside and you’ll find them leading quiet, productive lives in cities and towns across America.

The stories that get told about veterans usually focus on the small percentage that are struggling to find jobs or dealing with other serious issues. Although unintended, this focus skews the public's perception and creates a misperception that can hurt the job prospects for all veterans.

Perception Is Not Reality
Much has been made of the unemployment rates for the veterans who served after Sept. 11, 2001 – particularly those between the ages of 18 and 24. Stories about these veterans’ unemployment rates, which fluctuate considerably from month to month, follow each new release of data by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Such attention creates the misperception that returning veterans can’t find jobs. The reality is that even the youngest veterans, many of whom voluntarily take longer to enter the job market, excel once they are employed because of the skills – both tangible and intangible – they learned in the military.

“The fact is that once most veterans get into the workplace, they do extremely well and the statistics show that their overall unemployment rates are lower than their civilian counterparts,” said Charles S. “Chick” Ciccolella, president of CSC Group LLC and former assistant secretary for Veterans’ Employment and Training Service (VETS).

The annual average unemployment rate for ALL veterans in 2010 stood at 8.7 percent, compared to the general population at 9.4 percent. That is not an anomaly.

“If you look at the annual unemployment rates over the last 20 or 30 years, the rates for veterans are lower than for non-veterans,” Ciccolella said. “For example, in 2009 the unemployment rate for non-veterans was 9.3 percent, while the rate for veterans overall was 8.1 percent.”

In fact, the jobless rate for all veterans was lower than non-veterans every year since 2000 – even through two recessions. Unemployment-rates-line-graph
What about the young vets?

Younger workers have had the highest unemployment rates since Sept. 11, both among veterans and non-veterans. The jobless rate for veterans ages 18 to 24 was 20.6 percent in 2010, according to the BLS, compared to non-veterans at 17.3. But a look behind the numbers indicates they may appear worse than they really are. There are several reasons the unemployment rates for young veterans may be skewed.

Reason 1:  Comp Time, SIR!
Many veterans in the 18- to 24-year-old age group have been forward deployed three, four or five times during their short military careers. When they separate, they often choose to take some time off before going to work or school.

“After such a demanding deployment schedule, what veteran wouldn’t want to take advantage of 60 days of basket leave and an ability to collect unemployment for a while in an effort to recharge their batteries prior to starting a civilian career?” said Chris Hale, president of the National Veteran-Owned Business Association (NaVOBA, www.buyveteran.com). “Most civilians need comp time for working an occasional Saturday. Veterans are simply looking for a little comp time for being forward deployed for 12 months straight. Can you blame them?”

Ciccolella agrees. “Some veterans I have talked to want to take a break after service before they get into the work force or go back to school,” he said. “I think that is very normal.”

While this time off is richly deserved, it inflates the unemployment rate for America’s youngest veterans.

Reason 2:  Return to Hometown
Many young veterans leaving the military haven’t decided what to do next. “This could be because they’ve been so busy in the military that they may not have had enough time to really think about what they will do when they leave the service,” Ciccolella said.

Some return to their hometowns to explore their options.

“Many veterans joined the service because there were no jobs in their hometown,” said Hale, a nine-year Navy veteran. “Some veterans who choose to return to those hometowns after the military find that the job prospects haven’t improved. It takes some veterans a little time to exhaust that hometown dream before migrating to places with better job prospects.”

In the meantime, these young veterans, too, are on the unemployment rolls.

Reason 3:  Back to School
Tens of thousands of young veterans take advantage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill to go to college. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), more than 440,000 veterans or family members have used the new GI Bill since it was enacted in 2009. But even before the Post-9/11 GI Bill, 15 percent of veterans between the ages of 18 and 24 enrolled in college in the first month after separation from the military, according to the BLS, which tracked the transition of veterans from 1998 to 2008. Two years after separating, nearly a quarter of veterans ages 18 to 24 were enrolled in college.

Those who took their time enrolling were likely collecting unemployment while they decided what to study and where to go to school. Veterans also can collect unemployment while they research schools, apply to schools and wait for classes to start – a process that can take months. This also drives up the unemployment rate for America’s youngest veterans.

Reason 4:  Delayed by Deployment
Regardless of how skewed the unemployment numbers are, there’s no question America’s youngest veterans face a tough job market when they transition out of the military. For those who enlisted right out of high school and are embarking on their first job search, deployments can deter their preparation for a civilian career.

Bill McMillian, transition services manager at Fort Bragg, N.C., oversees the Army Career and Alumni Program (ACAP) that helps 400 to 500 soldiers a month prepare for their military-to-civilian transition. He said veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan often don’t have time to properly prepare for their transition. Soldiers frequently return from deployment with 60 days or less until they separate. Two to four weeks might be spent on leave getting reacquainted with their families, leaving little time for a proper job search.

“So they’re out of here before they can take advantage of the programs for them,” said McMillian, a 20-year Army veteran. “There’s a lot of things going on that are causing the unemployment rates to go where they are.”

The op tempo of the Post-9/11 era caught up to Rob Wells, 31. The former Army captain and OIF veteran had set a separation date in 2006 when he was “stop-lossed,” forcing him to postpone his transition plans. “I was actually approved to leave two weeks before my separation date,” Wells said. “I had no plan and no time to get one together.”

Wells briefly sold cars – a job he hated – just to pay his bills. After losing a job as a financial advisor trainee in 2008, Wells found a civilian career he loves working as a human resources supervisor for Fluor Corporation.

“I should have started planning at least a year in advance, that way my stop-loss wouldn’t have hurt as much,” Wells said. “I would have thought about what I wanted to do and where I wanted to live.”

Key to Success
The unemployment numbers for all veterans confirm that once America’s youngest veterans set a career course, most excel because of their military training. That’s no secret to corporate America.

“Those who wear our nation’s uniforms are mission-focused, highly skilled, motivated and possess unique experiences and technical knowledge,” said Matt Rose, chairman, president and chief executive officer for BNSF Railway. “Military candidates embody the core competencies of BNSF: leadership, teamwork and the ability to perform safely in a fast-paced, dynamic environment.”

Corporate America Heavily Recruits Vets
The corporate horizon is lined with companies that invest heavily in recruiting military veterans. Thousands of companies compete fiercely each year to be named to the G.I. Jobs magazine Top 100 Military Friendly Employers® list, which honors the companies that are doing the most to recruit America’s veterans.

“Active military duty has graduated beyond the traditional combat-only responsibilities to include the hands-on application of leading-edge technologies, logistics, communications, analysis and leadership – skills in high demand at ManTech,” said Carlos S. Echalar, vice president of human resources for ManTech International. Half of the company’s 9,700 employees are veterans or serve in the Guard or Reserve. “Veterans who possess these skills closely match our customer base and have a deeper understanding of our customers’ infrastructure, culture and customs.”

Write your own success story
Every year G.I. Jobs magazine charts the best practices of the Top 100 Military Friendly Employers®. This year’s report reveals that:

  • 92 percent of the Top 100 employers had at least one hiring manager devoted to recruiting military veterans, up from 90 percent last year.
  • The companies on the 2011 list reported an average of 23 percent of their new hires were military veterans, up from 20 percent in 2010.
  • 78 percent pay the difference between military salary and civilian salary for members of the Guard and Reserve who are deployed, up from 71 percent in 2010.

So don’t be discouraged if you’re getting ready for your own military-to-civilian transition – despite what you might hear. America’s employers get it. Just ask Chris Volk.