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Young Veterans Are The Ones Most Likely to Be Jobless

With every good intention, American employers are honoring the nation’s military veterans today with promises of jobs and redoubled recruiting efforts.

From Washington, where Michelle Obama announced yesterday that corporate leaders will hire 100,000 vets and military spouses in the next two years, to a Phoenix job fair today where Chase Bank is encouraging veterans to attend its job fair, the focus has been on addressing veteran hiring. Late Thursday, the U.S. Senate passed a veterans jobs bill.

Without a doubt, it is a worthy effort. But it is also one that faces challenges very much like those plaguing the civilian employment situation. The fact of the matter is that unemployed veterans look a whole lot like unemployed civilians: young and undereducated.

A second, smaller, but still substantial problem, is the one facing Reservists and the National Guard: multiple call-ups and the legal obligation to rehire them when they return from duty, makes many employers reluctant to hire them in the first place.

Testifying before Congress four years ago, Ted Daywalt, CEO and president of Vetjobs.com and himself a veteran, said, “The military knows that returning members of the National Guard and Reserve are having civilian re-employment problems.” He told a Congressional committee back then that VetJobs received several calls a month from veterans telling how they were asked about their interest in the Guard or the reserves. “While the question is illegal, it is occurring.”

“Most disturbing,” he added, “as this trend grows, returning National Guard and Reserve personnel — the very people who have been fighting to keep the United States free — will find it harder to obtain meaningful employment equal to their education and experience.”

Little has changed, Daywalt says, since his testimony to Congress. “If you are leaving the military today,” he told me just a few months ago, “companies want to hire you, until they find out you’ve joined the Reserves or are in the Guard.” The call-ups of Reservists and the National Guard may have abated, but employers who had to endure the loss of people in key positions they couldn’t fill or, if they did, had to figure out what to do when the employee returned from service, those employers are reluctant risk it again.

That may explain why the rate of unemployment for the Guard and Reservist veterans of this century’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was 14 percent last year. For all veterans, including the Guard and Reserves, the rate was 11.5 percent.

Under federal law, “returning service members are to be reemployed in the job that they would have attained had they not been absent for military service, with the same seniority, status and pay, as well as other rights and benefits determined by seniority.”

Officially the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act and known by its initials, USERRA, the law is supposed to protect returning vets from being penalized for their active duty service. But, Daywalt says, small and mid-sized employers in particular have found ways to game the system, out of necessity, he adds, not malice. One of the examples he offered in our discussion was of a company where the HR department laid off workers before the acutal call-up orders were issued, thus circumventing the USERRA rules.

According to the Department of Labor, in fiscal 2010, there were 34,612 calls to the customer service center run by the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve. ESGR is typically the first place employers and veterans turn for help with the requirements of USERRA. Of those contacts, 3,202 resulted in actual cases that required mediation.

When a formal complaint is filed by a veteran, an investigation is launched, which can, though rarely does, lead to a federal prosecution. In fiscal 2010, there were 1,438 new cases; 117 were referred to the Justice Department. Five resulted in DOJ complaints.

Just this month the Justice Department settled a case against Lowe’s, which fired a National Guardsman without cause within a year of his reemployment. Lowe’s paid $45,000 to the fired veteran.

Although, as Daywalt’s Congressional testimony points out, the Guard is also subject to being called out with some frequency for natural disasters, the reemployment and discrimination problems should diminish with the reduction of overseas forces. Less tractable is the high unemployment of young veterans.

Despite what seems to be a prevalent theme that veterans can’t find jobs, the reality is that it is veterans under 25 who are having the most problems finding work.

For all veterans, regardless of age, the unemployment rate last year was 8.7 percent. For the nation, it was 8.8 percent. (The percentages are not seasonally adjusted.) But as you drill down, as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics did in a special report on veterans, it becomes obvious quickly that veterans 18-24 are faring the worst. Last year, 20.9 percent of them were unemployed. Those 25-34 had an unemployment rate of 12.6 percent.

Not to minimize the problem, but young vets aren’t much worse off than the youth population generally, especially when you consider the participation rates: more vets are in the labor force than civilians their age. The BLS data for 2010 says the unemployment rate for all 16-24 year-olds was 18.4 percent. (The data for just the 18-24 year group isn’t available. However, the BLS rates for 18-19 year olds in 2010 was 24.2, and 15.5 percent for 20-24 year olds.)

Says the BLS, “In general, Gulf War-era II (Iraq and Afghanistan this century) veterans had unemployment rates that were not statistically different from those of non-veterans of the same gender and age group.” The BlS might also have added educational level to that statement.

Gulf War II vets older than 24 had an overall unemployment rate of 10.2 percent. Those with only a high school degree had a rate of 12.7 percent and about the same for those with some college. However, only 3.9 percent of vets with a college degree were unemployed.  Last month, 4.2 percent of the U.S. labor force with a college degree was unemployed. (The number of vets who didn’t graduate high school was too small to include.)

Thursday, the U.S. Senate approved a bill giving employers tax breaks for hiring disabled and unemployed veterans, and, of particular importance to younger veterans,  providing education and job training benefits.

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