The unemployment rate for recent veterans is incredibly high

November 11, 2013

Veterans Day is, of course, a day to honor and remember those who have served in the military. But it's also worth noting some of the steep challenges that many American veterans have faced in recent years on returning home.

This chart from the Council of Economic Advisers shows that the unemployment rate for recent veterans remains incredibly high — around 10 percent — and remains noticeably higher than it is for non-veterans in the same demographic group:

veterans unemployment

The jobless rate for all U.S. veterans was just 6.9 percent in October — slightly lower than it is for the population as a whole.

But the unemployment rate for veterans who have served since 9/11 stood at 10 percent, with 246,000 out of work. That's the same rate as it was a year ago, and it's a higher jobless rate than it is for non-veterans, after adjusting for age and demographic factors. That is, even when you factor in the dismal U.S. economy, recent veterans are still having trouble finding work.

Why is unemployment for recent vets so high? Three recent reports tried to take stock of the situation facing "Gulf War II veterans." Here are a couple of additional factors, in no particular order:

1) Disability: Disability rates are much higher among veterans, and that can make a difference for their job prospects. In 2011, some 28 percent of all Gulf War II veterans reported a disability related to their time in the armed service — and those vets face a jobless rate of 12.5 percent. (The rate for recent veterans without disabilities stood at 8 percent, though it's not clear if this difference is statistically significant.)

Similarly, a 2011 Pew survey found that 44 percent of veterans who served since 9/11 were having trouble adjusting to civilian life. That was particularly true for those who suffered serious injury or endured an emotionally traumatic experience during their service.

2) Lack of civilian work experience: Returning veterans have plenty of traits that should make them attractive to employers: discipline, leadership, and even specific training in areas like health care or information technology. But they also typically have less civilian work experience. And for many companies, that makes a big difference — when the economy is weak, employers are less likely to take risks when hiring.

It's worth observing that veterans who served in the Reserve or the National Guard had a lower unemployment rate (around 7.2 percent) than those in the rest of the armed forces — possibly because they have more opportunities to pick up civilian work experience.

3) Obstacles for veterans making the transition: There are quite a few government programs to help military veterans transition back to civilian life. They include the GI Bill, training assistance, disability aid, and a tax credit for private employers who hire veterans that Congress enacted back in 2011. (Here's the full array of federal programs.)

George Frey/GETTY IMAGES - Margarita Angelo of Zions Bank talks to veteran Robert Ryan, who is looking for a job at the "Hiring Our Heroes" job fair on November 4, 2011 at the South Towne Expo Center in Sandy, Utah.
George Frey/GETTY IMAGES - Margarita Angelo of Zions Bank talks to veteran Robert Ryan, who is looking for a job at the "Hiring Our Heroes" job fair on November 4, 2011 at the South Towne Expo Center in Sandy, Utah.

But even with all those programs, there are still hurdles. One example: A report (pdf) from the White House earlier this year noted that many states and localities have complex licensing requirements that can hinder military veterans from easily applying their skills to civilian jobs.

So, for instance, the 10,000 military health-care workers or 10,000 military truck drivers who left the armed services last year often have to pass new tests and go through a fresh set of licensing hurdles in order to get a job as a civilian EMT or truck driver — even if they already have the required skills.

The good news, the report said, is that many states have recently begun enacting laws to remove these obstacles. For instance, 34 states have now adopted rules to waive "behind the wheel" tests for, say, veterans who were driving trucks in the armed services. But these sorts of exemptions tend to be patchwork, and they're still far from universal.

"Despite having valuable military experience, veterans frequently find it difficult to obtain formal private sector recognition of their military training, experiences, and skill sets through civilian certification and licensure," the report said. "This also makes it difficult for the private sector to capitalize on the resources and time spent training and educating service members."

The report argues that these problems need to be addressed soon, since the number of veterans is expected to rise sharply in the coming years: "Each year the military separates between 240,000 and 360,000 service members, and as we draw down from the war in Afghanistan, the military is expected to separate a million service members over the next several years."

Related: Here's a 2011 story from my colleague Michael A. Fletcher on the difficulty that many veterans have finding civilian employment.

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Sarah Kliff · November 11, 2013