The high rate of joblessness seen among soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan is less about available jobs and more about employer perception,” says Diane Zumatto, national legislative director for the veterans advocacy group AMVETS. “Whether it’s conscious or unconscious, many people fear veterans,” she says. “They believe that anyone who is a veteran is damaged goods.”
Bureau of Labor Statistics data for 2014 showed that the unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans was 6.2 percent for September, compared with 5.9 percent for the nation as a whole and 4.7 percent for the veteran population overall. For post-9/11 vets, this marked a decrease from nearly 10 percent unemployment in 2013; but observers still consider the rate too high, since veteran unemployment rates are typically far lower than the nation as a whole.
Advocates who have studied the issue agree that, when looking at those who have served this country since 2001, joblessness results from a combination of factors—not only negative stereotypes that lead to discrimination, but weaknesses in programs that assist veterans. Not long ago, most employment-search support programs would end once veterans returned home or weren’t mandatory for returning soldiers. In addition, some military training can’t be credited toward comparable civilian certifications, such as aviation, nursing, or truck driving.
Returning soldiers also need help writing resumes, though the need may not seem immediately obvious, as some jobseekers are in their 30s or older. Despite their age, it may be the first time that many have sought civilian jobs.
“People who go into the military right out of high school or college have never had a civilian job or a resume,” says Zumatto, who, through her position at AMVETS, helped to form the military’s current transition program, but believes that the process may be too short, especially when compared with training. “We take months to turn them into soldiers,” she said, “and then when they leave, we give them what, a week?”
Lost in Translation
When returning from service, veterans need to first “translate” their military skills and jobs in a way that makes sense for civilian employers. Larry Jones, a service officer for Disabled American Veterans (DAV) in New Orleans, says that the Hero 2 Hired program launched in December 2011 literally has a translation box on its homepage that allows returning soldiers to translate their skills by typing in their Military Occupational Specialty code—for instance, “11B” for someone who served as a rifle infantryman, or “09L” for an interpreter/translator. Jones says it is almost like another language, and using the wrong title, even if accurate, may get an applicant nowhere. “If you put ‘M16 Machine Gunner’ on top of your resume, you may not get too many calls,” Jones said, suggesting that “technician” is still an accurate term but might be more civilian-friendly.
Some careers do translate easily, but that varies significantly from state to state. For instance, Joe Dufrene, 46, a U.S. Navy corpsman during Desert Storm, said that Louisiana certifications allowed him to go to work immediately as a lab technician in a local hospital, “which is exactly what I did in the Navy.”
Dufrene and Jones are part of New Orleans VFW Post 8973, which is led by post commander Jeremy Brewer, 32, who did two tours in Iraq as an infantryman. Brewer spent two years in the security forces, had close-combat training and learned non-lethal crowd control. A lot of people from his specialty go into law enforcement, he said, but he went back to school using the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which reinvigorated the old program that enabled soldiers to transfer directly from their tour of service to school (before the new bill passed, the old GI Bill had dwindled down to about $400 a month in aid).
The new GI Bill pays the equivalent of public, in-state state tuition plus a books and housing stipend for 36 months for those with military service after September 2001. Brewer earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and then landed a job in New Orleans with a rebuilding agency called The St. Bernard Project, where he manages their veteran initiatives.
Brewer says there are veterans who would like to continue their military specialty and find it nearly impossible. For instance, Brewer has a good friend who served as a combat medic, who was trained and registered as a nurse according to military standards. “At the very least, he should be a few classes away from a civilian nursing license,” Brewer said. But in Louisiana, his friend couldn’t even be hired as an emergency medical technician, a position for which he is far overqualified. Absolutely none of his nursing classes transferred. In order to work as a civilian nurse, he would have to start with pre-nursing coursework and then attend and graduate nursing school.
Brewer’s brother is in a similar position. He served in the military for eight years and became very experienced in heavy construction and diesel-hydraulics. But once he transitioned home, none of his training met civilian standards. “He’s got all this training, but he has to start from nothing,” Brewer said.
His brother is now enrolled in an 18-month mechanic program paid for by the new GI Bill. But for each component—brakes, hydraulics–he must pay $100 for a test and certification, which the GI Bill doesn’t cover.
Since the release of data on post-9/11 veteran unemployment, there has been movement in some states to accept military training for civilian licenses. But Zumatto also believes that the military should work with credentialing bodies to make sure that the curriculum and training are compatible. “Then when people get out, they would either already have that credential, or would earn it during the last six months or year of service. That would be a great benefit,” she said.
A Forgotten Minority?
Some believe that the joblessness experienced by post-9/11 soldiers may also be symptomatic of a different issue: that the general public is too insulated from those who have served in the nation’s military in Iraq and Afghanistan, because these are the first wars fought with an all-volunteer military.
“America is not really engaged with these wars,” Zumatto says, contrasting today’s home front with the well-known example of World War II involvement, when most families had relatives, mostly sons or fathers, fighting overseas, and those at home worked in factories or rationed supplies to support war efforts. Today, under an all-volunteer force, most people don’t have to sacrifice, she says. “But the fact that these folks stepped forward and said, ‘I will serve’ means others don’t have to fight.”
Because most people don’t have military experience, they are less likely to welcome back those returning from war and be able to relate to the skills they learned.
“Let’s face it, we are a minority. Only 23 million veterans are alive today. There just aren’t as many veterans as non-veterans,” Zumatto says.
With this in mind, the Hero 2 Hired program’s guide for employers attempts to educate employers about the skills they might find appealing. The guide asks, in bold type: “Why Hire a Person with Military Experience?” It then lists positive attributes of military veterans: “Are Proven Leaders; Maintain Professionalism; Take Responsibility; Understand Diversity; Are Physically Fit and Drug-Free; Have a “Can Do” Attitude; Are Calm Under Pressure; Exude a First-Class Image; Are On-Time, All the Time; and, Have a Global Perspective.”
A recent survey of employers by the Center for a New American Security found a lot that potential employers liked about the idea of hiring veterans. But those hiring were also worried about negative stereotypes; fearful that if they hired a veteran, he or she might be deployed; and concerned that a person with a military background might not be able to acclimate to their workforce. That’s a complete flip from past perceptions. “Up until the time of Vietnam, veterans were golden. People were enamored,” says Zumatto.
Public sentiment supporting war has also diminished, starting with Vietnam and continuing today, with a high level of public opposition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. That feeds negative stereotypes, as does media coverage that focuses, Zumatto said, “almost exclusively on the negative: unstable veterans, a shooter who is a veteran, military suicides, PTSD, military sexual trauma, traumatic brain injury.”
Even in the U.S. Congress, where Zumatto lobbies, the level of engagement has shifted. A generation ago, it was almost a requirement of office to have served in the military; now few have that background. “Used to be that 75 percent were veterans,” she said. “Now roughly 20 percent are.”
Fortunately, it is still popular for politicians to support domestic veteran legislation, such as The Vow To Hire a Hero Act, signed by President Barack Obama in 2011, which addresses veteran unemployment through programs like Hero 2 Hired and through employer tax credits and outreach. Another program, the Returning Heroes Tax Credit, pays up to 40 percent of the first $6,000 of wages, up to $2,400 for firms that hire veterans that have been unemployed at least four weeks, or up to 40 percent of the first $14,000 of wages (up to $5,600) for long-term unemployed veterans who have been out of work more than six months. The Wounded Warrior Tax Credit pays up to $4,800 to firms that hire veterans with service-connected disabilities and doubles the existing tax credit for firms that hire long-term unemployed veterans with the same disabilities.
AMVETS was also able to convince legislators to introduce two bills that make it illegal to discriminate against people because of their military or veteran status, but the bills have not yet made much progress. Zumatto says that once again, it goes back to perception: “When we do Hill visits or when I talk with people about it, their first reaction is usually surprise: they’re surprised to hear that veterans experience discrimination.”