The new U.S. veteran: Young and looking for work

Military veterans seeking jobs wait in line to enter the Recruit Military Career Fair March 19, 2009 at AT&T Park in San Francisco, California.

One of President Obama’s big applause lines in his State of the Union address last month was when he said this: “Over the next year, another 34,000 American troops will come home from Afghanistan. This draw-down will continue, and by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over.”

That means tens of thousands of soldiers will leave active duty for active job-hunting over the next several years. But it won’t be easy, as an annual report on veteran employment will confirm when it’s released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics today.

Unemployment among veterans aged 25 to 34 stood at 9.2 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012. For non-veterans in the same age group, unemployment was only 7.6 percent. Veterans 18-to-24-years-old face an unemployment rate of nearly 25 percent right now.

BLS economist James Walker says young vets face some unique challenges in an economy in which jobs are hard to find for everyone, and youth unemployment is already high.

“Gulf War II-era vets, recent veterans—a large proportion are high school graduates," says Walker, "or they have some college or associate’s degree." But, he adds, while they've been training and fighting, their civilian counterparts have been finishing BA's, getting job experience, moving up the career ladder.

Walker thinks most Gulf War II-era veterans will eventually catch up to the rest of the population, just like their elders did after serving in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. In fact, older veterans, decades after deployment, have slightly lower unemployment rates than the general population.

But Ted Daywalt, president of VetJobs.com, a VFW-sponsored job site for veterans and employers (and himself a Navy veteran), says some young veterans face a challenge that their predecessors didn’t. He says their employment and advancement opportunities are being stymied by repeated lengthy deployments in the National Guard and Army Reserve.

Daywalt offers a hypothetical example: “So you’ve got a National Guard soldier who just came back from fighting in Afghanistan for 18 months. He comes home, he’s been on the job for perhaps 60 days, and then all of a sudden there’s a (range) fire and he needs to leave again for 30 days. Employers can’t run their businesses that way.”

Daywalt points out that employment discrimination is illegal under the Uniformed Services Employment and Re-Employment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA). Employers have to keep a Reservist’s or Guard member’s job open for them until they return from deployment. But Daywalt says employers have multiple ways to get around the law, and many still prefer to hire job-seekers who won’t be called away multiple times on short notice.

BLS economist James Walker points out one more challenge facing veterans who are now leaving active duty and entering the job market: Shrinking employment opportunities in the federal government due to budget cuts and the sequester.

Walker says approximately 14 percent of recent vets work for federal, state and local government, compared to just 2 percent of the same age cohort in the general population. That’s in part because of government programs that encourage hiring of veterans, including those with service-related disabilities. Approximately one quarter of Gulf War II-era vets report some level of disability from their recent service. Walker says as federal hiring slows down, Iraq and Afghan war veterans will be among the first to feel the squeeze.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

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