Employing Veterans: Debunking the Myths

During a panel discussion at the Brookings Institute last week, former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke echoed a familiar refrain from the last decade: veterans have an employment problem.

During the event, titled "The Defense Economy and American Prosperity," Dr. Bernanke told the audience that veterans lag behind their non-veteran peers in the private sector, bringing fewer skills to the labor force and earning lower wages once they get there. Dr. Bernanke named what he saw as the main culprit in the disparity: the military itself.

"The military takes our younger people and uses them for good purposes, but it's not really adding much to the private sector through training or other experience," he said. In other words, when America beckons its youth to serve in the armed forces, it is hoisting upon them a far longer and deeper economic sacrifice than many of us realize.

Dr. Bernanke mentioned that one of his former students in graduate macroeconomics conducted a study that looked at how Vietnam veterans fared in terms of their long-term market experience. The student concluded there was no real benefit provided to veterans by the military in terms of skills and earning potential. As a veteran and also one of the Fed Chairman's former macroeconomic students at Princeton, I am delighted to take this opportunity to set the record straight about the current state of our veteran community.

Earlier this year, Got Your 6, our campaign working to elevate the conversation about veterans issues, published the Veterans Civic Health Index -- a report that refutes the prevailing narrative in America of veteran victimhood. The report found that we veterans are not the "broken heroes" that our national leaders and the media have made us out to be. To be sure, some veterans do struggle with unemployment, homelessness and Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS), but on the whole we are a resilient bunch.

The Veterans Civic Health Index proves that. The findings indicate that we veterans vote, volunteer and help our neighbors at higher rates than our civilian counterparts. The vast majority of us do not experience PTS, and fewer than 10 percent of us are homeless -- statistics far different than what most Americans think.

Regarding jobs specifically, the Veterans Civic Health Index offers a stark contrast to the claim Dr. Bernanke made on Monday. "If you leave the military, your skills and wages are probably not going to be quite as high on average as the private sector person."

The Veterans Civic Health Index revealed that the veteran unemployment rate has hovered below the non-veteran rate every year for the last decade. The report also highlights that veterans who are employed make more money than their civilian peers in the workforce who have no military experience. This rings even truer for women, Hispanics and African Americans -- these veterans display significantly better education and employment profiles than their non-veteran counterparts.

Take a look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics' most recent numbers, and you'll find that just last month the unemployment rate among veterans over 18 is 4.7 percent, lower than the 5.4 percent rate for their fellow non-veteran citizens. While it is true that 7.1 percent of post-9/11 veterans are currently out of work, Dr. Bernanke conceded in his talk that every generation of veterans experiences a natural adjustment period to working in the private sector. That is no different today than it ever was.

We must keep in mind that ill-informed statements by public officials can feed negative stereotypes and propagate myths that, in the case of employment, encumber would-be employers with counterproductive bias and suspicion toward veterans.

If we are going to see our veterans thrive after reintegrating into society, then we need to recognize and value the skills and assets they bring that will make our communities stronger and our country greater. We need to empower them to be the leaders and civic assets they are.

That effort can begin with employers, to whom I pose this challenge: See veterans as assets and not liabilities. Ignore the endless parade of speeches and sound bites that cast us as beleaguered and hapless. Believe in the leadership we offer and honor the sanctity of service by giving us an opportunity to succeed. America will be better for it in the end.

Rob Gordon, a retired Army colonel, is a former Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy. He is currently president of Be The Change, Inc. and oversees the Got Your 6 campaign.