Older Veterans Deserve Better In The Labor Market

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At first glance, news that the nation’s unemployment rate is now 4.1% -- a downward trend now spanning 80 quarters – would appear to merit celebration. One would assume that an economy moving towards full employment would lift the nation’s mood, even amidst the ongoing political drama in Washington, DC.

Not so.

Last month’s unemployment numbers from The Bureau of Labor Statistics suggest that while the economy has continued its recovery, many Americans have yet to experience the full effect of this positive economic news. There is a segment of our labor force that deserves our special attention as we approach Veterans Day: The men and women who have served in our military. Employers today have made extraordinary efforts to provide workforce opportunities for our recent post 9/11 veterans. These employers range from agencies of the federal government to private companies. Recent veterans have been welcomed as never before into a jobs environment where their skills, discipline and ability to work under pressure can be utilized with great success.

And according to a recent study by the Congressional Budget Office entitled Labor Force Experiences of Recent Veterans, Gulf War II veterans participated in the labor force at a rate equal to civilians over the period from 2008 to 2015. Our employers should be lauded for extending the hand of opportunity to these heroes. But there is another group of veterans that time and space have allowed us to ignore: The 16 million Vietnam-Gulf War 1 era veterans who carried the nation’s values onto the battlefield, but returned home to experience an unwelcoming reception from many employers. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affair, 60% of unemployed veterans are age forty five or older. Even though many older veterans possess outstanding technical and organizational skills, this group has struggled to gain traction and tenure in the workforce.

Also of note: Female veterans across the age spectrum have generally underperformed their male counterparts by most measures. Female veterans have higher rates of unemployment than their male counterparts. Unemployed women veterans are more likely to be single and currently live below the federal poverty, lack health insurance, and have an annual household income of less than $20,000.

A major shortcoming in the official unemployment reports are their failure to accurately measure the millions of Americans that have simply given up. They have exited the workforce. Some will re-appear in the gig economy and, others on public assistance. But for the most part, many older veterans’ have simply opted out of the official labor force.

For many older Americans, including veterans, there is hope in the form of a little known federal program established under Title V of the Older Americans Act: The Senior Community Service Employment Program or “SCSEP.” Since its inception in 1965, SCSEP, the only federal training program for older workers, has assisted over 1,250,000 low-income older Americans transition into the workforce along a pathway that includes community service. Each year approximately 50% of SCSEP participants will transition into private sector employment. In any given year over 5,000 employers will either host or employ SCSEP participants. Importantly older veterans will comprise between 12-14% of the total number of participants assisted by SCSEP. For our nation’s older veterans, SCSEP has proven to be an invaluable employment lifeline.

Last month I traveled to New Bedford, Massachusetts. Located on the southeast corner of the state, New Bedford has experienced difficult times. It is a gritty city. The population is diverse; and being a port town, New Bedford has attracted a relatively large immigrant community of Cape Verdeans among others. New Bedford is also a very proud city. The downtown area has undertaken a mini revitalization and, there is hope for new development along the waterfront. New Bedford is also home to the Coastline Elderly Services, one of the city’s biggest employers. Coastline Elderly Services administers a SCSEP program.

During my visit to New Bedford, I met several SCSEP participants. They appreciated a federal program that aided their return into the workforce. However, in a question and answer session with a group of twenty employees, one gentleman stood out: “Jeff,” who appeared to be in his early 60s. He had clearly lived a tough life. After his military service, he remarked that he once held a good job in a factory – that is now long-closed. His life had spiraled into alcoholism and substance abuse. The turnaround for Jeff came when he was referred to Coastline Elderly Services. - the agency’s programs stabilized his life and SCSEP provided him with employment. According to Jeff, “Simply put SCSEP saved my life.”

There is a Jeff in every community across our nation.

Workforce programs like SCSEP provides a substantial number of veterans with a “lifeline” to work opportunities each year, but we can and must do more – particularly for the thousands of older veterans and women not supported by this program. Through work, older Americans of all backgrounds have become less isolated, are less prone to illness, and contribute more to their communities. Our older veterans deserve the very same employment opportunities as other groups within our labor force. That is the least we can do for them.