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April 24, 2013

Veteran unemployment, collaborative engagement and the veteran community

Veteran unemployment, collaborative engagement and the veteran community

Written By: James Schmeling, IVMF Managing Director and Co-founder

Nationally, veteran unemployment numbers, overall, are dropping –though the trend line over the past five years is still higher not lower. Despite this upward trend over time, the overall unemployment picture of our nation’s veterans (all ages and all eras of service), when taken as a whole, is still better than their non-veteran counterparts. We know that military service conveys education and experience that is valuable in the civilian workforce. Our Business Case for Hiring a Veteran demonstrates academically researched and supported characteristics veterans bring to the workforce–characteristics which convey competitive advantage to their employers when recognized and put to use. We know that over the life course of veterans, military experience is beneficial to their employment outcomes. That is the big picture.

The myriad of small pictures we have of veteran employment are more varied. Veteran unemployment among our youngest veterans and within particular demographics—including women, OEF/OIF veterans, Latina women and select eras, ages and genders— is still far higher than their non-serving contemporaries. Particular demographic groups have entirely different employment experiences from other groups, and from non-veterans. Some are better outcomes than non-veteran peers, others are worse. Some short-term experiences are worse than most, but not all, long-term experiences. Veteran homelessness (typically tied to unemployment), substance abuse and other issues are still a problem both impacting and impacted by unemployment.

Recently, competing dialogue in the veteran space, news articles (or commentary) each written for different purposes, framed these issues in their own terms, and perhaps with both expected and unintended outcomes. IVMF executive director Mike Haynie addressed the dialogue in his recent blog entry, Rhetoric Run Rampant: It’s a Dangerous Game, suggesting data must be carefully and broadly viewed, or the risk is presenting a picture that is inaccurate for the purpose of designing responses to issues of great importance.

Our most recent Annual Employment Situation of Veterans shows the following:

Overall, the 2012 unemployment rate for veterans was 7.0%.This level represents a decrease in the unemployment rate from 2011, which stood at 8.3%.The unemployment rate for Gulf War era II (post-9/11) veterans for 2012 was 9.9%, a decrease from 12.1% in 2011. While Gulf War era II veterans between the ages of 20-24 still maintain the highest rate of unemployment at 20.6%, the 2012 rate demonstrates a 9.3% decrease from 2011, which stood at 29.9%. The unemployment rate of Gulf War era II veterans continues to compare unfavorably to that of their non-veteran counterparts (ages 20-24), which stands at 13.2% for 2012.

The IVMF also conducted trend analysis focused on the changing employment situation of both veterans and non-veterans from 2000 to 2012, and for Gulf War era II veterans from 2008-2012. Over this time period, the unemployment rate of Gulf War era II veterans has remained higher as compared to both non-Gulf War era II veterans and non-veterans. Female Gulf War era II veterans have experienced the highest unemployment rates during this five-year period: the average unemployment rate for female veterans was 11.1%, as compared to 7.1% for female non-veterans. For 2012, veterans ages 20-24 are unemployed at a rate 13% higher than their non-veteran, age group counterparts. While this employment gap between the country’s youngest veterans and their non-veteran, age group counterparts decreased from 2011 levels (21.2%), it remains significantly higher as compared to pre-2004 levels.

In contrast, Brandon Friedman’s piece in TIME paints a picture of military service leading to better employment outcomes, pointing to those outcomes as evidence that veterans are well-suited to post-service civilian employment, and even discussing high initial unemployment rates as a natural component of transition. Perhaps this serves to “normalize” new and young veteran experiences with the goals of helping them understand they are not unique in struggling with fast transition. This has value—maybe it will reduce suicides, stress on military families and other byproducts of not immediately finding a job, right career or perfect educational institution.

Perhaps it was intended to reduce employer reluctance (which does exist) to hire veterans who are new, young, ethnically diverse, female or unemployed, by saying those are normal experiences so don’t use them to screen out potentially high values employees. It might accomplish those things.

But, it might have also inadvertently discouraged veterans who are struggling from seeking the very services and supports that could improve their employability, or assist them with benefits, or housing supports to reduce risk of homelessness. Worse, it disregards the actual crises that exist for segments of the veteran and transitioning military service member populations who are struggling for a variety of reasons. Perhaps still worse than that, readers may conclude there is no need for services, supports, community engagement and employment initiatives and will abandon work that is benefiting veterans. After its publication, the IVMF received many inquiries asking essentially that in the absence of crisis, why we are expending resources and what could we be doing instead.

Disregarding those veterans who are experiencing employment barriers as not in crisis because ALL veterans, nationally, of all eras taken together, have better unemployment statistics than non-veterans is like saying there is no crisis in Staten Island due to Hurricane Sandy since New York as a whole survived intact and hurricanes are natural phenomena from which communities recover over time. It’s like saying the destruction of New Orleans at the hands of Katrina wasn’t an urgent priority because the worst flooding and hurricane damage was largely limited to Mississippi’s coast and the Lower 9th Ward, leaving 48 states relatively untouched. There was no limit to the outpouring of support in either circumstance. Celebrities lent their names and voices to crisis mitigation in those settings, just as they are for veterans. We had national hearings on responses, and they improved responses to those crises, and perhaps to future crises. Similarly, we hold hearings, change policy, promote employment and successful transition back into communities from deployment to war (often many times over in the course of an individual or unit’s service) because we pay attention to the issues.

Perhaps Friedman’s article could result in a call to understand exactly what is needed, and what in the public, private and independent sectors is responding effectively to that need. That, though likely an unintended consequence of the piece, may help remove many of the unnecessary and ineffective organizations in this space, including those staking a claim or existing in the space only because there may be funding, or a justification for existence, or uninformed donor support. I suspect this is what Friedman is really railing about–the idea that “crisis” is manufactured to engender funding for those who serve themselves or their organizations, and not veterans and their families.

Tarantino’s response in TIME while understandable, also troubles me. Sarcastic responses to Friedman’s article in the introduction draw interest and audience, but do little to help the public understand the dialogue or the issues, nor does it engender collaboration where collaboration could benefit veterans, between and among many organizations that do good work. I witnessed some of this in disability-focused work I’ve done over the years–different organization disregarding or dismissing each other, refusing to collaborate, not acknowledging the good work done by others or attempting to improve work found lacking. Organizations focused on their stakeholders alone, at the expense of other stakeholders, when addressing tax credits, or work incentives; organizations which instead of concentrating on solving problems, eventually turn to sustaining the organization as the only real goal. These issues are far too important to take that approach (by anyone–I am not singling out Tarantino and IAVA, nor Friedman). Tarantino then takes a more factual approach in the latter part of his article, as did Friedman in his. Both agree that we can and should do more to assist in transitions for veterans. But perhaps those segments should have been the entire article, rather than the finish to controversial or sensationalist lead-ins.

I’ll be blunt. I don’t care for “in-your-face” advocacy generating media maelstroms, suggesting problems have scope much broader than may really exist, maximizing the worst and minimizing the successes that are happening. I don’t agree with the approach that calls for the heads of people genuinely engaged in work benefitting veterans because work proceeds too slowly, or with insufficient transparency. I didn’t care for that approach when I worked in the disability community, and I don’t now in the veteran community. That’s why I chose to work in an academic institution and engage in policy, programs, collaboration-building, research and more.

But, not caring for an approach isn’t the same as not valuing it. Active advocacy, on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, is probably necessary, and I’ll leave it to those who do it well to carry out those activities. But, I believe firmly that active advocacy’s place is to point out the problems, and demand that outcomes and goals be set, and achieved. I believe researchers, policy wonks, legislators, executives responsible for change and outcomes and others play the role of determining how to achieve the solutions, what paths make sense and then implementing those paths together with those in whatever sectors can help achieve those outcomes.

Government is adjusting to the new realities of these wars (more claims and more complex claims made to the VA, for instance). We don’t yet fully know what does and doesn’t work, what may be different about service in this generation compared to previous generations. We do know we need to learn from the past, continue to evolve our models and build on the successes, just as we learn from failures and adjust course. The new approach announced by Allison Hickey, VA Under Secretary for Benefits, may be a key turning point. Changes to allow combat veterans access to VA health care for five years post-service made a few years ago were also highly valued.

In the employment realm, actions taken by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and their Hiring Our Heroes initiative, the 100,000 Jobs Mission initially spearheaded by our founding partner JPMorgan Chase & Co. and GE’s collaboration with Alcoa, Boeing and Lockheed, as well as the collaboration of the White House’s Joining Forces in these and many other employment focused activities, may be the primary reasons unemployment hasn’t spiked even higher than it has so far.

As an academic institute we draw on a rich community of those who have come before us, done research, created systems of research, of policy analysis and advocacy, of education and more, and that provide constructive criticism of our work.

Our work in this space has convinced us that collaborative, engaged, meaningful whole-of-government and, indeed, whole-of-society efforts are necessary to our veterans, their families who bore the burden with them and our nation. Those efforts are not well served by a divided veteran community. More importantly, they call for a unified and national approach to veteran services. We called for that in our recent National Veterans Strategy: The Economic, Social and Security Imperative. Interestingly, this has been dismissed by some as an academic exercise with little chance of success at a legislative or political level. But, the on the ground truth is that business and industry is seeking a unified approach in government to echo their own unified approach, that builds coalitions to learn from each other and to share veteran talent. Programs in DoD, DoL, VA and many other organizations are collaborating in new and innovative ways.

Many in the philanthropic or independent sector are banding together to make grants to organizations enabling them to conduct more complex services and provide supports across areas that couldn’t be done with only one funding source. Organizations like the Rochester Veterans Outreach Center have created a community blueprint [guide]–an on the ground, how-to, for veteran services that blends and braids approaches to veteran services including employment, engaging communities on the ground, which is shared widely among VSOs.

We invite suggestions for what we can do better (or sharing and promoting our work when we do it well) in service to those who have served. We welcome the opportunity to continue to build bridges between veterans and organizations doing good work, to share our knowledge and to learn from business and industry, to inform and be informed by the independent sector and to engage with government at all levels. We also encourage a robust dialogue. Perhaps it won’t always be easy to hear, but our veterans are best served by having difficult discussions when they can make a difference—hopefully the right difference.

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