As a Marine combat veteran and the Chief Operating Officer for Hire Heroes USA, a national nonprofit organization that helps veterans get jobs, I scratched my head after reading a recent Time magazine article titled “The Veterans’ Jobless Crisis that Isn’t.”
The author, former Army Airborne officer Brandon Friedman, categorically dismisses the idea of a national veterans’ unemployment “crisis.” To support his claim, Friedman cites data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to emphasize the long-term advantage that veterans have historically enjoyed in the labor force. In the short term, however, Friedman expects the transition to be “rough” and describes his own 11-month struggle to find a job after leaving the military as a decorated and college-degreed officer, a struggle he relates to the high unemployment rate amongst young, combat arms veterans.
Confusingly, Friedman offers a faintly patronizing conclusion: veteran unemployment is a problem – but not a crisis – because we should expect many young veterans who served in the war to lack qualifications that make them employable. He notes, however, that training and education can help mitigate this skill-gap over time. It is all part of the “sacrifice” for members of the all-volunteer military.
I disagree with Friedman’s premise on three counts: I disagree that a veteran unemployment rate less than the national average means that there is no crisis (call it a “major problem” if semantics is a concern); that many veterans who exit the service should expect to rank behind their civilian peers professionally, resulting in lost economic opportunity; and that we should allocate scarce resources to find jobs for the “most qualified” veterans ( i.e. those who performed jobs like logistics and administration), while we relegate infantry, artillery, and other combat veterans to a long process of training and education to make them eventually employable.
I am not alone in my opinion that the unemployment rate for recent veterans should equal zero for those who want and are able to work. While Friedman shrugs his shoulders at the “expected” high unemployment rate of recent – particularly, young and combat arms – veterans by chalking it up to lack of marketable qualities and experience, my first hand observation as an infantry officer and now as a nonprofit executive is that the professional experience, leadership, and maturity of the average 18-24-year old veteran is at least comparable to that of his or her nonveteran peer.
The long-term veteran unemployment rate – which as Friedman points out has historically been a few percentage points lower than the national average – validates the exceptional quality of American veterans. The veteran population is not “average” – a study done in 2009 showed that less than 25% of Americans of service age meet the basic standards for enlistment – so when employers hire veterans, they tend to retain them. The major problem is not in the long-term veteran unemployment numbers, but in the near-term dislocation and underutilization of an excellent pool of smart, capable labor.
The lost economic opportunity cited by Friedman as a matter of course for recently separated veterans who “have to accept that they’re behind their civilian peers professionally” is not a law of economics, but rather a confluence of unnecessary barriers to civilian employment that arbitrarily exclude many otherwise highly-qualified veterans.
As an example, many job notifications require candidates to possess a bachelor’s degree, though in practice the job responsibilities could be performed more than adequately by an individual with critical thinking skills, maturity, and a gift for assimilating new information. Vestigial degree requirements on job descriptions are so common that economists call them “the sheepskin effect,” where an employer uses the degree as a proxy for intangibles such as dependability and character.
Does anyone truly believe that a non-degreed veteran who led up to 12 Marines in combat lacks dependability or character? This is just one example of the unintended – and avoidable – barriers to civilian employment for many of Friedman’s self-sacrificing veterans.
Training and education do comprise part of the solution, but not necessarily in the manner or duration suggested by Friedman. Friedman expects training and education to help overcome the lack of qualities and skills that make a recent veteran unemployable.
However, at Hire Heroes USA we conduct two-day workshops to help transitioning service members recognize their existing value. After completing our workshop, they realize that they already have the qualities and skills that make them highly desirable to civilian employers. The impact is immediate: service members who go through a simple resume-writing and job-search workshop obtain work four times more often upon separation than do their untrained peers. While a formal college degree offers advantages and may be financially within reach for veterans with GI Bill benefits, many veterans exit the service with family and financial commitments – this means that their next step will likely be a full-time job, not full-time education.
I am pleased that Friedman calls for less rhetoric and a more targeted approach to reducing unemployment in those veteran segments most likely to face unemployment. This is, in fact, what Hire Heroes USA and many other nonprofits and government agencies have been doing for years.
But when we minimize the problem of veteran unemployment by treating the most vulnerable veterans as if they are the most expendable, we dishonor the men and women who have worn the cloth of this Nation and who are bound to its citizens by an unbreakable social contract in perpetuity. To dismiss their struggle to reintegrate into that society as an expected – and therefore unavoidable – inconvenience diminishes their service. It also will undoubtedly prejudice future generations from volunteering for their own service in the military.
That, indeed, would be a crisis.