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Do today’s veterans really have trouble getting jobs?

Dan Weissmann Mar 18, 2015
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The Bureau of Labor Statistics releases annual figures on employment for veterans every March. There’s a familiar story that veterans from the post-9/11 era have had an especially hard time finding work. However, the numbers supporting that premise turn out to be elusive. 

There is this striking graph from the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University:

Differences between unemployment rates for veterans and non-veterans

This chart from Syracuse University shows that veterans ages 20-24 have higher unemployment rates than older veterans, and than the general population. But other data isn’t broken out.

“If you look back to about ten years or so you start seeing a real spike,” says Nicholas Armstrong, the Institute’s research director. “A gap in terms of unemployment being higher for vets that are ages 20 to 24.”

However, that’s a small group — small enough that the gap isn’t always statistically significant, according to Jim Walker, an economist who tracks veteran-employment numbers at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “That group, there’s very few of them,” he says. “It has a very high error rate.”

The Syracuse chart also leaves out other numbers that seem like they would make a useful comparison, For instance: What about 25 year-old vets? What happens when those younger vets turn 25? Armstrong’s group hasn’t tracked those stats over time.

It’s not that the data undercut the familiar narrative. Only that I haven’t seen an analysis that demonstrates that story.

Neither has Kate Kidder, a researcher who looks at veterans issues at the Center for a New American Security. She says veterans groups, lobbying for resources, do push stories about out-of-work veterans. 

“Individual stories are compelling,” she says. “And it’s also — a number of these folks were coming back as the economy was tanking.”

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