Posted by: Dan Beucke on November 11, 2011 at 3:45 PM
On Veterans Day in America, it’s sobering to realize just how badly the job market has turned against the men and women who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their rate of unemployment was 12.1 percent in October, vs. 9 percent for the U.S. overall. But that only scratches the surface of the employment picture for vets.
Dig deeper into the pages of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics employment data and it becomes apparent that while the job market is slowly improving for most Americans, it’s moving in the opposite direction for Gulf War II vets (defined by the BLS as those on active duty since 2001). The youngest of veterans, aged 18 to 24, had a 30.4 percent jobless rate in October, way up from 18.4 percent a year earlier. Non-veterans of the same age improved, to 15.3 percent from 16.9 percent. For some groups, the numbers can look a good deal worse: for black veterans aged 18-24, the unemployment rate is a striking 48 percent.
(The BLS provided us with hundreds of pages of data beyond what’s easily found on the Internet; if you want to analyze the numbers yourself, we’ve posted them for October 2011 and for October 2010 here.)
That 18-24 category only covers 320,000 veterans. I used BLS data to expand the bracket and calculate the rates for vets aged 18 to 34. Unfortunately, the trend still holds up: their jobless rate grew to 16.6 percent in October, from 12.6 percent a year earlier. For non-veteran men and women of that bracket, the jobless rate shrank, to 11.4 percent from 12.0 percent. The issue is not just that unemployment among young vets is high. It’s that if there’s even a limited jobs recovery, they are not sharing in it.
“The numbers don’t lie,” says Ryan Gallucci, deputy legislative director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Washington. “The new veterans are going into the unemployment pile.”
The “new” part is key. From age 35 on, for the most part veterans have a lower unemployment rate than non-vets. In surveys earlier this decade, veterans aged 25-34 also did well. The BLS released figures in 2005 that showed veterans in that age group with a lower unemployment rate than their peers (just 3.8 percent vs. 5.0 percent.) For 2008, the rate for vets 25-34 was just a shade above that for those who hadn’t served in the military. Now for that group it’s 11.7 percent, well above the 9.2 percent rate for non-veterans. What might be most worrying is that what’s happening with younger vets looks like a leading indicator: the cohort of veterans now entering the work force in the midst of the economic malaise may point to a future in which veterans are falling behind their peers.
Why would someone coming out of military service have a harder time finding a job? Think about the demographics of a young soldier. Most are men, and unemployment is worse now for men: 9.5 percent in October vs. 8.5 percent for women. Younger vets are coming right out of high school; the job market punishes those with less education. Many vets come from and return to rural and rust-belt areas that are struggling. And the cut-throat competition for jobs has been hardest on those out of work the longest; fair or not, eight years in the Army is viewed by some employers as eight years without private-sector skills and experience. At a job summit held by the House Committee on Veterans Affairs in September, Gallucci says, some companies said many vets have a hard time adjusting to corporate culture.
The skills issue is particularly troubling. Hiring is strongest in jobs that require specialized education, and weakest for blue collar jobs, says Stephen Fuller, a professor of employment and economics at George Mason University in Arlington, Va. Even military jobs that are in the right ballpark for growth industries — say, software or electronics technician — may involve specialization that doesn’t readily apply to Silicon Valley’s Web 2.0 or software-services jobs. Some military positions seem to line up perfectly with their civilian counterpart — think of an emergency medical technician or truck driver. But that doesn’t mean the soldier comes out with the required licensing. Someone who’s been driving an armored truck through the mine-strewn streets of Iraq still has to pass state driver certification.
How could it get worse? Let’s say the Congressional deficit committee fails to achieve a breakthrough in the next two weeks. The result will be $500 billion of automatic cuts to the Pentagon budget over the next 10 years. There are a number of ways that could play out, but the House Armed Services Committee estimated in September such an outcome would push nearly 200,000 additional soldiers and Marines onto the job market. The draw-down of forces in Iraq and Afghanistan is already sending more troops home.
It doesn’t help that a higher proportion of vets work for government (that’s even truer of disabled vets). That has been the hardest-hit employment sector recently. Over the past two months alone, 57,000 federal, state and local jobs have been eliminated. President Obama made it a priority for federal agencies to increase hiring of vets; 25 percent of all federal civilian hires in fiscal 2010 were veterans. At least at the state and local level, many vets move into police and fire jobs, which haven’t been targeted as much as, say, teachers.
Is there any hope? In a rare breakout of bi-partisan agreement, the Senate yesterday passed a bill that grants tax credits for companies that hire vets and overhauls job training and counseling. The House is expected to OK it next week. Daniel Indiviglio over at The Atlantic has analyzed the tax credits and found that while they may help some veterans find work, they probably won’t boost hiring overall. The job training changes, according to the VFW’s Gallucci, should make it easier for military jobs to translate into civilian certification.
In other words, it could help a little. Still, to quote George Mason’s Fuller, for vets “it gets worse before it gets better.”
Update: One big difference with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is that more of the soldiers going overseas are women. Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial Holdings Inc., talks in this Bloomberg Television interview about the challenges for women vets reintegrating into the economy. (I ran the BLS numbers; the unemployment rate in October for women vets aged 18-34 was 13.2 percent vs. 11.2 percent for non-vet women. One small bit of good news: both those rates are lower than they were a year ago: 14.2 percent for vets, 11.6 percent for non-vets.)
(Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)