By Joshua M. Patton
At the beginning of July, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released new figures that show that for the fourth time this year, the unemployment rate for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans has dropped to 9.5%. This marks the fourth month this year where the numbers have gone below ten percent. From January 2010 to December 2011, that only happened twice. Since First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, wife of the Vice President launched their Joining Forces initiative last year, the unemployment rate for Veterans dropped to an average of one percent lower than the national unemployment rate. While the BLS statistics are not infallible, they seem to indicate that perhaps the problem of disproportionate unemployment amongst veterans, specifically post-9/11 veterans is a battle we are winning here at home.
There have been a number of recent employment bills and initiatives that have contributed to this success. On July 10, the White House issued a press release that stated Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, along with Joining Forces Executive Director Brad Cooper, and Association of American Railroads President and CEO Ed Hamberger, announced that they were looking to hire 5000 veterans to work the railroads here in America. Many rail companies have teams in place which provide transition training for veterans leaving active-duty and entering the private-sector workforce for the first time. The railroads have always hired veterans, and this pledge is a commitment that they will continue to do so. Unlike the current trend in corporate America, those who work for rail companies tend to stay in those positions until retirement.
Another federal program, Operation Boots to Business, seeks to train Marines leaving active duty in the necessities of business from résumé writing to applying their soldiering and leadership skills to a civilian environment. The other branches of the military have similar programs and private companies such as venture capital firm TechStars and Google have also created programs designed to attract and aid potential veteran employees.
On Capitol Hill, a number of bills have been sponsored to address the needs of unemployed and homeless veterans. One such bill, which would allow veterans to apply their applicable military training to gain federal licenses needed in many civilian jobs, has passed through the largely ineffectual election-year Congress and has been sent to the White House for the President’s signature. While many positions also require state licenses, it is the hope of the Congress and the Obama Administration that the states will follow suit with similar bills. Groups such as the VFW, The American Legion, and IAVA have pushed for this legislation for years, the former two for decades.
However, all of this does not come without some points of contention. Another bill that aims to expand re-employment rights under the Uniformed Servicemembers’ Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, which requires companies to re-employ deployed service members in the position they left when they deployed or in a comparable position. The loophole in the act is that a company can claim “undue hardship,” if holding the service member’s vacated position – especially on an extended deployment – would hurt their business. This bill limits that claim to small businesses with less than 500 employees. The American Legion supports this bill, however the VFW opposes it. Ray Gallucci told USA Today that he believes this bill “would make members of the National Guard and reserve unattractive employees to large companies.” In essence, rather than deal with being forced to save a service member’s position, they would just stop hiring them all together. Still the VFW is doing their part, they have secured an agreement with Alberta, Canada to send “tens of thousands” of workers north to work on the Keystone Pipeline. However, this initiative has received criticism since the positions are long-term, these veterans would be forced to pay taxes in both Canada and the United States. There are no easy solutions to complex problems like veterans unemployment.
Another federal initiative is aimed at providing grants to outreach programs aimed at aiding and training homeless veterans. However, given the way that both war and life on the streets changes a person, many wonder if the efforts of these groups will be enough to illicit any real change. Despite the groups aimed at providing training to veterans for the job market, what they do differs little from what any career services representative at universities and unemployment offices provide to their clients. Veterans lose time and the chance to make many of the valuable “networking” connections that their civilian counterparts make during college or internships. Also, with the job market troubled for the entire country, the fear is that these efforts are something akin to too little, too late. Yet, what remains true about all of this, is that in the fight against veteran unemployment things are changing for the better.
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