Recent Vets’ Unemployment Falls Below the National Average

Much progress made, but transitioning skills remains a challenge

By Roy Maurer Nov 11, 2015
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The jobless rate for Iraq and Afghanistan war-era veterans has dropped under the national average, illustrating a tremendous improvement for vets’ employment prospects in recent years.

According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the unemployment rate among Gulf War-era 2 veterans (defined as having served in the military since September 2001) was 4.6 percent in October 2015, significantly lower than the national jobless rate of 5.0 percent. And this is in contrast to the start of 2015, when the jobless rate among these recent vets was 7.9 percent. The jobless rate for recent vets was over 10 percent in 2013 and peaked at a record high of 15.2 percent in January 2011.

The unemployment rate for all veterans (3.9 percent) in October 2015 remains well under the national average. The figures mean that about 422,000 veterans nationwide are currently considered unemployed. The number of unemployed veterans was over 1 million four years ago and near 700,000 in early 2014. (Individuals are classified as unemployed if they do not have a job, have actively looked for work in the prior four weeks, and are currently available for work.)

Notably, veterans’ participation rate in the labor force is 10 percentage points less than the 62 percent participation rate among all Americans, though recent vets have a participation rate of 81 percent.

“The success of [recent vets] emphasizes just how much these veterans bring to the employment table. Most entered military service right out of high school and while many might have planned to enjoy a full career with the military, they are at least coming out of the service with skills and experience that are in high demand,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

Efforts Paying Off

The public and private sectors have pushed for greater veteran employment in recent years, enacting transition programs and conducting national campaigns to encourage veteran hiring. “The process further accelerated as the economic recovery finally took hold,” Challenger said.

The hiring environment has changed dramatically since Lisa Rosser started HR consultancy The value Of a Veteran in 2007 with the express purpose of educating employers on the value of military service, skills and experience. “Part of the uptick is the natural course of recovery for the entire economy—more companies are adding head count compared to back in the late 2000s,” Rosser said. “The big difference is that as they are adding head count, more employers are deliberately looking at how to include veteran talent. Some of that is competitive, seeing other industry peers have success with it.”

Another influence is the veteran hiring benchmarks set in 2014 by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, which mandated federal contractors to establish a hiring benchmark for veterans based on “the current national percentage of veterans in the workforce,” which was adjusted to 7 percent based on 2014 end-of-year data. “Companies that are considered federal contractors now are being audited on their outreach and hiring efforts, which is lighting a fire under these efforts,” Rosser said.

Bill Deutch, creator and executive producer for Hiring America, which bills itself as the first TV series dedicated to helping veterans find jobs, cited a combination of actions across the private and public sectors in moving the needle on veteran hiring, including:

  • Congress mandating that all veterans receive transition training while in service.
  • Government agencies working together to identify employment opportunities. “A good example is the trucking industry where the Department of Transportation worked with the Department of Defense and all state drivers’ licensing agencies to approve a military skills waiver that credits military truck driving experience, so veterans only need to take the state written exams to obtain their commercial truck driver’s license,” Deutch explained.
  • Corporate efforts like the JP Morgan Chase-led 100,000 Jobs Mission initiative which engages large employers across several industries.
  • The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Hiring Our Heroes Program, which connects employers to veterans through the hundreds of job fairs it organizes with military installations around the world and local communities.
  • The national press, which “has played an important part by covering the value of our veterans to employers, which has helped raise awareness,” Deutch said.

Challenger cited the Returning Heroes and Wounded Warrior tax credits, which offer employers tax breaks for hiring veterans, and the White House’s initiatives connecting veterans with employers as reasons why many veterans have been able to get back to work.

“Besides extended tax credits … companies quickly learned that there are numerous benefits to placing former military on the payroll. They have proven leadership skills, ability to work in a team, strong work ethic, integrity and respect for procedures,” Challenger said. “Most workers’ day-to-day job tasks can be taught. It’s these soft skills that are difficult to teach and what makes veterans so valuable.”

The Society for Human Resource Management’s Enterprise Solutions helps employers design and implement customized, branded websites to attract and retain veterans, as well as individuals with disabilities and other minority candidates.

Developed in cooperation with DirectEmployers Association, SHRM Enterprise Solutions helps employers reach veterans and transitioning service members with a veteran-focused Web domain and a job skills translation tool.

Compared with eight years ago, there is so much more awareness now “that veterans’ skills and talents are not less than their civilian counterparts … [this message is found] on websites, YouTube videos, public service announcements, commercials, etcetera,” Rosser said.

Opportunities at Work

According to the CareerBuilder Veterans Day Job Forecast, 38 percent of employers said they are planning to actively recruit veterans over the next year, up from 33 percent that said so in 2014 and 27 percent in 2013. In addition, 47 percent said they have hired a veteran in the last year, and 31 percent have hired a veteran who recently returned from duty, compared to 44 percent that hired a veteran in 2014. Of note, more than one in four (27 percent) of all currently employed veterans plan to test the job market for a new job next year, an increase from 24 percent in 2014. Nearly half (47 percent) of employers said they pay more attention to the applications submitted by veterans, and 69 percent said that if given two equally qualified candidates—one veteran and one not—they are more likely to hire the veteran.

The nationwide survey was conducted by Harris Poll on behalf of CareerBuilder from Aug. 12 to Sept. 2, 2015, and included responses from 2,529 hiring and human resources managers and 256 veterans employed in full-time positions.

The top 10 jobs for vets in 2015, according to the survey results were:

  • Customer service: 38 percent.
  • Information technology: 32 percent.
  • Sales: 31 percent.
  • Production: 29 percent.
  • Distribution and logistics: 22 percent.
  • Accounting/finance: 22 percent.
  • Business development: 21 percent.
  • Marketing: 20 percent.
  • Research and development: 20 percent.
  • Human resources: 19 percent.

Challenges Remain

According to the CareerBuilder study, 31 percent of employed veterans say they are underemployed or in a low-paying job, up from 23 percent in 2014.

Marketing and executing veteran hiring initiatives may be paying off, “but employers may still not understand the skills veterans had in the military, which may land them in positions that don’t use all their skills and not get them the higher salary levels that they deserve,” said Rosemary Haefner, chief human resource officer at CareerBuilder. “Once hired, employers should work to ensure veterans have the skills they need to be successful and in challenging, rewarding roles in their civilian careers.”

A majority (71 percent) of working veterans said they felt prepared to enter the civilian workforce after leaving active duty, and only a third (33 percent) said they didn’t know what industry or field in the civilian world was relevant to the type of service they performed on active duty.

But Rosser and other veteran advocates flag translating military skills and experiences to civilian jobs as one of the biggest challenges that still exist for transitioning service members and veterans.

“Even though the economy is in a much better position to absorb those leaving or about to leave military service, the transition from the military to the civilian workforce is always challenging,” Haefner said. “These men and women have skills and experience that are in demand, but they just don’t know how to describe them in a way that nonmilitary recruiters understand.”

Rosser said that “it is still too black and white for the service member.” Take a cook in the Army who doesn’t want to be a cook as a civilian. “There is more to being a cook than just cooking. You had to manage vendors and order supplies with appropriate timing. You had to inspect food and maintain quality health and safety standards. You had to handle unexpected situations and still accomplish the mission of feeding the troops. Those skills can be repurposed at least 20 different ways in corporate America, and with only some correlation to restaurant jobs,” she said.

Rosser challenged companies and the government to “find a way to effectively and efficiently communicate with transitioning military and veterans so that they can see they have options and do not need to completely start over once they leave the military.”

The challenge persists as an estimated 200,000 service members leave military service every year and there are particular pockets that still need a lot of help, such as young vets and female vets, Deutch said. “HR has a critical role in this because HR is where the processes of sourcing, targeting and hiring qualified candidates happen,” he said. “HR needs to ensure the processes are in place to continue seeking these veteran candidates and hiring them.”

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy

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