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Rhetoric Run Rampant: It’s a Dangerous Game

March 26, 2013

Rhetoric Run Rampant: It’s a Dangerous Game

Written by: Mike Haynie, IVMF Executive Director and Founder

Last week, the Department of Labor released data summarizing the employment situation of the nation’s veterans for 2012.  In response, many voices in the veterans’ community have recently felt compelled to express opinions about what is–or is not–true about veterans’ unemployment. Unfortunately, as happens far too often in the case of veterans’ issues, this battle of rhetoric has become focused on the extremes:  alternatively, “Veterans are a community in crisis, facing dire employment challenges.” or “There is not now, nor has there ever been, an employment crisis. No need to worry, we’re just fine.”

Fueling this most recent debate is an essay published in TIME magazine, “The Veterans Jobless Crisis That Isn’t.” Drawing from just-released employment data, the author argues that the public narrative related to the employment challenges facing America’s newest and youngest veterans has been “an exaggeration, at best.”  In other words, “No need to worry, we’re just fine.”

As someone very familiar with both the issue and the data, I can say that there is nothing factually incorrect about the article. It’s true that “Historically, veterans have enjoyed higher rates of employment than the general public.” It’s also true that as a population, the employment situation of all veterans in the U.S. compares favorably to that of all Americans. Further, I admire the author and his past contributions to discourse related to veterans issues.

So what’s my problem?

It’s less about the article itself and more broadly about how the concerns of veterans are so often artfully represented (and thus, misrepresented) based on a narrow and selective approach to transforming data into knowledge. It’s like what Nobel Prize-winning economist Ronald Coase once said, “Torture the data, and it will confess to anything.”

Is there an employment crisis facing our newest and youngest veterans?  I’ll answer that question by saying that there is a real and compelling danger when we mistake tortured data for knowledge and actionable insight. Instead, we owe it to our veterans, their families and the nation’s employers to be careful, precise and comprehensive when we represent what is–or is not–true about this important issue.

A few points in this regard, related to the TIME article:

First, drawing definitive conclusions about what is–and is not–true about the employment situation of post-9/11 veterans based solely on BLS data is unwise and dubious. The number of post-9/11 veterans actually sampled in the data is exceedingly small, and from this small sample, unemployment rates are extrapolated and generalized to the entire veterans’ population. Thus, I’m skeptical that the use of this data alone allows us to definitively argue that the higher than average unemployment being experienced by our newest and youngest veterans is, as the author suggests, “a natural curve that veterans experience when they leave the military.”

Second, if we’re going to rely on BLS data to inform the nature and tone of our rhetoric, we should use all of the data in a way that confers insight beyond top-line statistics, and instead deconstructs the nuanced employment challenges facing different segments of the veterans’ community.  In other words, don’t paint all veterans with the same brush.

For example, while the overall unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans improved for 2012, consider that female post-9/11 veterans continue to be unemployed at rates significantly and chronically higher (currently 11.6%) than female non-veterans (currently 7%), a trend that has held generally constant throughout much of the past five years. Also consider that beginning in 2006, the unemployment gap between veterans and non-veterans in the 20-24 age group started to increase; that is, the unemployment situation of veterans in the 20-24 age group began to grow increasingly worse relative to their non-veteran peers (of equivalent age): 6.3% worse in 2006, 7.3% worse in 2007, 8.3% worse in 2008 and 12.6% worse in 2009. There was a slight (but statistically insignificant) improvement in 2010 (11.8%), and then the rate jumped to 21.2% in 2011. For 2012, the difference in the annual rate of unemployment between veterans and non-veterans ages 20-24 dropped to 13%. This year-to-year improvement (between 2011 and 2012) is positive. That said it’s important to also note that the difference in the annual rate of unemployment between veterans and non-veterans ages 20-24 remains significantly higher as compared to pre-2004 levels, and the linear trend suggests this gap to be increasing over time.

Also consider disability status. The BLS data indicates that disability status is impacting the employment situation of some veterans in a way different from others, and different from non-veterans; post-9/11 veterans with disabilities are unemployed at a rate almost 3% higher as compared with other veterans, and as compared to non-veterans with a disability.

The point here is that generalizing a crisis–or not–to an entire population based on summary data is inappropriate and shortsighted given the disparate challenges facing an inherently diverse community. Instead, deeper analysis is necessary to understand if, how and why some veterans continue to experience employment challenges that are meaningfully different relative to both their veteran and non-veteran peers.

Third, many of those suggesting that we need not be concerned about the employment situation of veterans have relied heavily on historical trends to inform a contemporary situation. While it’s important to draw lessons from history, it’s also important to acknowledge why and when those comparisons are inappropriate. In many ways, the post-9/11 generation of veterans does not lend itself to an apple-to-apples comparison with past generations of veterans. For example, our nation’s Guard and Reserve components have been engaged in a way different than in past conflicts, the cycle of multiple deployments characteristic of this generation is unprecedented and the percentage of female veterans that make up the universe of our newest and youngest veteran job-seekers is higher than in the past, as is the rate of service-connected disability reported by this generation of veteran job-seekers. In addition, this generation of veterans is more likely than past generations to leave military service married and with children. Finally, the broader social and economic environment in which our newest and youngest veterans are pursuing employment is vastly different as compared to past, post-war periods in our nation’s history. Thus, leveraging historical data to suggest future outcomes represents a tenuous proposition, in cases where the attributes of the population and the environment are so vastly different today as compared to prior post-war periods.

Finally, the logical basis supporting the contention that there is no cause for alarm related to the employment situation facing post-9/11 veterans also assumes away the unprecedented efforts of many in the private sector (and government) who have acted to advance the post-service employment situation of contemporary veterans. Consider that the 100,000 Jobs Mission–a consortium of private sector firms collaborating to hire veterans–has hired more than 52,000 veterans in the past 18 months. Consider the consortium of large manufacturers partnering on Get Skills to Work, a national initiative to create careers in manufacturing for more than 15,000 veterans with the goal of filling more than 600,000 available jobs in advanced manufacturing. Consider the efforts of the Chamber of Commerce and Hiring Our Heroes, which over the past two years has held 400 job fairs for veterans across the U.S., engaging with local and regional employers in a way that is unprecedented in our contemporary history. Consider the Joining Forces effort spearheaded by the White House, and the coalition of Joining Forces employers that has reported more than 125,000 veteran hires over the past three years.

My point is to acknowledge that perhaps the employment situation of our newest and youngest veterans is positively trending because voices in government and the veterans’ community have publically declared the unemployment rate of veterans “unacceptably high” and a “national disgrace”—and because politicians and citizens have been putting pressure on companies to integrate veterans into the civilian workforce.  I don’t know if this is the case, but I do know that’s it’s disingenuous to ignore the possible impacts of these efforts on the current employment situation.

In the end, the irony of my own contribution to the current discourse related to veterans’ employment is that it’s fundamentally aligned with the same core message inherent in the TIME essay that I take to task in this blog entry; that is, I agree with the author that we need to tone down the rhetoric so as to reflect balance, caution and objectivity, and focus the public narrative more purposefully on the business case for why and how veterans make America’s companies more dynamic and competitive.

At the same time, I also feel compelled to urge strong caution to anyone who wants to declare the battle for veterans’ jobs a war that we don’t need to fight–especially given the one million additional service members who will transition to civilian life over the next five years, in the face of military downsizing. The reality is, we have no crystal ball that allows us to see how past efforts may have put off a crisis, nor to predict what challenges might be on the horizon.

Is there an employment “crisis” among the nation’s veterans?  It’s a good question, and I don’t have the answer. Here is what I do know: It’s a dangerous game to play when we allow tortured data to be mistaken for knowledge and insight. Case in point: since the publication of this essay in TIME, I’ve been asked by a growing number of private sector employers and some in the media to respond to the suggestion that the nation’s employers can begin to scale back their veteran hiring initiatives. Maybe there isn’t a crisis now, but there could be soon given this new rhetoric.

Dr. Mike Haynie, Ph.D., is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force and executive director and founder of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University.

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Mike Erwin
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Tremendously researched commentary, Dr. Haynie. Transition is a challenge for most people, and veterans are no different. Assistance during this critical window of time will go a long way to creating a smoother movement from service member to civilian. With 1.2mm Active Duty service member slated to move to the civilian sector in the next 4-5 years, with the reduction in the Active Duty force, this next 48-60 months is a critical period of time for veterans’ hiring initiatives to continue…..it will not only improve the lives of our veterans, but strengthen our companies, as well!

Aaron Scheinberg
Guest

Well said, Dr. Haynie. We need to strike a balance in informing the community about both veterans unique capabilities and the unique challenges they face after returning from combat. Veterans can be great assets to businesses, government, non-profit organizations, and we should enforce the idea that people should and want to hire veterans. At the same time, ignoring the challenges our cohort faces or framing it in only a positive light could be counterproductive to our efforts.

Ted Daywalt
Guest
Mike, Excellent comments. However, I would suggest that many have not understood the numbers. When looking at veteran unemployment, it helps to identify which veterans one is talking about. To make things easy, think in terms of three specific groups: transitioning veterans (those leaving active duty), separated veterans (been out for one or more years) and the National Guard & Reserve. At VetJobs (www.vetjobs.com) we see over 20,000 veterans and their family members a day visiting the site looking for work. For the most part those who totally separate from the military are finding work, which is not to say… Read more »
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