Solving the Riddle of Veteran Unemployment

As Americans make their July 4th plans, it's time to change the dialogue about our nation's newest veterans.
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"The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve shall be directly proportional to how they perceive veterans were treated and appreciated by their nation."

Those words may seem contemporary, but they're not. It's a quote from our first president, George Washington. His words may be from another era, but the applicability of them is just as true today as it was in his time. Maybe even more so.

And we're failing at it.

In May, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported the national unemployment rate ticked up to 8.2%, but the unemployment rate for young veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan spiked to 12.7% -- more than 4 percentage points higher than the national average.

These stats aren't outliers. Last year, the unemployment number for new vets in New York was 16.7%; in the nation as a whole, it was 12.1%. That's over 234,000 new veterans looking for work after separating from the military. For veterans ages 18 to 24 years old, the outlook was even worse - nearly 30 percent unemployment.

As Americans make their July 4th plans, it's time to change the dialogue about our nation's newest veterans.

For one, hiring veterans isn't charity. It's an investment and smart business. Veterans can help fill the huge skills gap in America that is hindering our recovery and undermining our global competitiveness. The Department of Defense spends millions and millions of dollars training our forces, and it is a lost investment if we don't re-purpose those skills for the private sector. In President Obama's own words, we have trained these folks to nation-build abroad. Now, we need them to nation-build here at home.

When World War II ended, America's workforce, and the manufacturing sector in particular, was infused with millions of talented veterans, and our economy thrived. With over one million service members leaving active-duty over the next five years, we have another opportunity to steer veterans to growth sectors like energy, healthcare, transportation and infrastructure, where there are massive demands for skilled workers.

Employers don't have to look far to find talented veterans ready for work. Take IAVA Member Carlos Pena of Jamaica, Queens, for example. Carlos has served 12 years in the National Guard and three combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11. On his last deployment in 2011, he helped run security for the US Army Corps of Engineers on construction projects throughout Afghanistan. The number of combat patrols he went on might not mean much in the civilian world, but the fact that he had worked on multiple infrastructure projects that totaled hundreds of thousands of dollars certainly does. While Carlos' peers were practicing economic hypotheticals in the classroom, he was conducting real world scenarios in a warzone under the most stressful conditions. Yet, he's struggling to find a full-time job to support his family now that he's back home. And unfortunately, his story is all too familiar to those in the military and veterans community.

New veterans like Carlos are why Veterans on Wall Street (VOWS), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America partnered Thursday to host a one-of-a-kind Hiring Our Heroes Jobs Fair and Conference to support veterans and their spouses in New York City. Over 80 companies including Bank of America / Merrill Lynch, Deutsche Bank, Citigroup, Credit Suisse, and Goldman Sachs as well as Capital One, GameStop, Coca Cola, American Express and Edward Jones stepped up to recruit veterans for their ranks. Their corporate message to our community: "We've got your back -- and we want you on our team."

We know job fairs like this work and Thursday's fair was a huge success, but they are just one part of the equation. Since March 2011, when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Chamber Foundation launched the Hiring Our Heroes program, nearly 10,000 veterans and military spouses have found jobs through 184 hiring fairs in 48 states. In addition to our grassroots campaign, however, we must address the systemic issues facing our nation's veterans when they leave the military and search for a second career. We must do a better job of helping transitioning service members make informed decisions about employment in the private sector. This includes telling them where the jobs are and showing them the critical path to good paying jobs to support their families.

For starters, we should advise them how best to utilize their Post-9/11 G.I. Bill benefits, something that has helped over 500,000 vets and their family members head back to school. IAVA has a G.I. Bill program that helps vets breakdown the costs of going back to school, their eligibility and the specific qualifications necessary for it. Maximizing their use of the G.I. Bill will ensure they can land one of two million jobs that President Obama mentioned in his State of the Union address earlier this year. It's unconscionable that there are a million unemployed veterans of all generations in America when we have twice as many jobs open for lack of training and skills.

Hiring veterans is also a national security imperative. If we don't act now, high unemployment for new veterans, members of the guard and reserve, and military spouses could spark a recruiting and a retention issue throughout our military. How can we expect young men and women to raise their right hands and serve in our all-volunteer force, if all they are greeted with is an unemployment check after putting their lives on the line for our nation? Why should any military spouse encourage their partner to make the military a career and endure long separations and frequent moves, if they can't achieve their own career aspirations?

Over the past year, countless leaders in the public sector from the President to Mayor Bloomberg and Speaker Quinn in New York City have called on the business community to do more for America's heroes. But the 2.4 million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and veterans of all generations deserve more than lip service -- they need jobs. They're ready and eager, even after a decade of war, to continue serving their communities on the home front.

The government and the private sector need to meet these men and women halfway. Veteran unemployment doesn't have a cure-all, but a Hiring Our Heroes Job Fair in New York is a start. It's proof that creative thinking and cooperation between the public, private and nonprofit sectors can go a long way -- and if it's smart for business, it's smart for America.

Paul Rieckhoff is the Founder and Executive Director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). Lt. Colonel Kevin Schmiegel (USMC Ret.) is Executive Director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Hiring Our Heroes campaign. In the coming months, IAVA and Hiring Our Heroes will sponsor more job fairs for new veterans and their spouses in Atlanta, Dallas and San Francisco. Veterans can register to attend in these cities here.

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