Military, businesses working to improve flawed employment system
By Rhys Heyden
After five years of infantry service in the Marines — including two tours of duty in Iraq and one in Afghanistan — Ibrahim Hashi was ready to go home.
But the transition back to civilian life was a battle in and of itself.
After completing the mandated civilian-preparatory Transition Assistance Program (TAP) — which Hashi described as “horrible” and “boring” — Hashi moved in with his parents and found himself an aimless, unhappy and unemployed civilian.
“I went to the local unemployment office and they tried to help, but it just wasn’t working,” Hashi said. “My Marine friends had told me the two guaranteed jobs for soldiers were cop or security guard. So I walked into the Dunbar offices one day and actually got an armed guard job.”
Hashi worked at Dunbar, a national security company, for a year. He said the pay was good, but the hours were just alright and the work (imagine lifting $10,000 in quarters) was exhausting. Worse, he still couldn’t afford to live on his own. In 2012, Hashi enrolled at American University as a 24-year-old freshman.
“From when I was at Dunbar, I knew I wanted more,” Hashi said. “Of all my friends who got out of the Marines at the same time — some went to college and some are unemployed to this day.
“What’s scary to me, though, is that out of all those guys,” he continued, “I’m the only one who has had a job since we came home.”
The battle against 20.4 percent
When dealing with veterans and unemployment in America, two things are fundamentally true: First, almost everybody agrees there is some kind of problem with society’s systems for matching vets with jobs. Second, almost nobody agrees how severe that problems is, what it is exactly or how it should be fixed.
From a Time Magazine op-ed that detailed “The Veterans’ Jobless Crisis That Isn’t” to an inimical Washington Post feature that profiled scores of unemployed veterans, reporting on the subject has also largely
Statistics about veteran unemployment also tell divergent stories. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the overall average veteran unemployment rate in 2012 was 7 percent, lower than that of the total U.S. population, which hovered around 8 percent. However, the unemployment rate for male veterans ages 18 to 24 in 2012 was a whopping 20.4 percent, compared to 16.4 percent for the general population in the 18 to 24 age range. The rate for male veterans ages 25 to 34 was also higher than the rate for their non-veteran counterparts (10.4 and 8.1 percent, respectively).
Though almost all veterans want jobs, and many employers want to hire them, experts say manifold inefficiencies, misconceptions and laziness plague American society’s patchwork system for employing this massive, sudden influx of returning post-9/11 veterans. Substantial factions within the military, business and academic communities are working to address veteran unemployment, but experts say collaboration and communication between these groups is infrequent, and often poor.
“What’s most frustrating, and I’ve personally dealt with this, is I don’t think veterans are fully aware of what they can do to get jobs,” said Daniel Pick, 33, a Navy veteran who advocates for vet employment. “Just because you’re unemployed doesn’t mean you’re helpless.”
“There are so many organizations trying to help vets find jobs, but there isn’t enough cooperation and collaboration between them. If you’re a vet and you’re looking at all these overlapping organizations, it’s extremely overwhelming.”
Why are young vets unemployed?
For Will Hubbard, 23, a D.C.-based active Marine reservist and federal analyst at Deloitte, a tax and consulting company, veteran unemployment boils down to a few key factors.
“Companies have stopped putting resources into [human resources], and a lot of vets aren’t being proactive enough,” Hubbard said. “They both pursue the easy path way too often.”
Hubbard himself is anything but lazy — he’s an opinionated, informed, fast-talking man with a foot firmly planted in both the military and civilian worlds.
Hubbard says it is his passion to hire and support capable young veterans, and he works to promote veteran success at Deloitte, where he serves as a vet liaison and adviser to senior leaders.
At the same time, Hubbard believes that young veterans are often lacking in civilian skill sets, education and local support networks immediately upon their return. Because of this initial disadvantage, Hubbard says society’s role in promoting veteran success has to go beyond merely hiring vets for patriotism or good public relations.
“If you leap right to employing P.F.C. Joe Schmo for patriotic reasons, without education or an established support network, then he’s going to be drowning and unprepared, then disgruntled, then he gives up and, hello, welcome to 20 percent unemployment,” Hubbard said.
Why don’t companies hire young vets?
Last June, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a D.C. think tank specializing in national security issues, published an in-depth report analyzing veteran unemployment issues.
After surveying 69 companies about their hiring policies, the report concluded that most companies hire vets for tangible, business-related reasons. However, the report also showed that negative stereotypes of vets (including post-traumatic stress disorder, anger and violence), as well as problems translating military skills to the civilian workforce are still quite pervasive.
Jennifer Leonard, 37, an Army veteran and current civilian action officer in the Army’s Warrior Transition Command, says hiring managers often associate PTSD with military resumes, frequently to the detriment
“More people in the U.S. have PTSD from automobile accidents than veterans have PTSD from war,” Leonard said. “Thinking somebody with combat-related PTSD would be violent in the workplace is about as ridiculous as thinking someone with automobile PTSD will go on a reckless driving rampage.”
Valerie Verra, the veterans service administrator at American University, says translating military resumes and skill sets can also be a hiring roadblock for many potential employers.
“I see some of these military resumes, and it’s almost like they were written in Chinese,” Verra said. “Being able to clearly define and translate skills is a big issue for veterans.”
Joel Smith, 24, a research assistant at CNAS who analyzed data for the report, says cooperation and communication between the military and employers needs to be improved in order to fully optimize veteran employment. To that end, Smith suggests letting recruiters onto military bases with more regularity and also educating recruiters about the benefits of hiring vets.
“Most companies we interviewed hired veterans and could articulate why hiring vets was good for business,” Smith said. “That said, there’s definitely a shrinking percentage of Americans who have the insight to see past the stereotypes and know what veterans bring to the workplace.”
“From riding a Ferrari to riding a tricycle”
With millions of post-9/11 veterans returning home from service over the past few years, dealing with the infamously tricky civilian transition process and a depleted job market has been a trying task for many vets.
“A good metaphor, I like to think, for leaving the military is that it’s like going from riding a Ferarri to riding a tricycle,” said John Kamin, 27, an Army veteran and project manager at the National Veterans Center. “In the military, you’re moving fast … It’s not easy, but you know exactly what needs to be done. Going from that to realizing that you could sleep until two o’clock in the afternoon … there’s a tremendous amount of anxiety. There’s nobody forcing you to do anything.”
Leonard said her first job coming out of her military service was fraught with miscommunication and difficulty adapting to civilian life.
“I was in this high-speed, fast-paced medic unit, and then I had to jump into academia,” Leonard said. “My colleagues complained about things that I thought were trivial — who should put the water bottle on the water cooler, how the copier wasn’t copying things. I didn’t stay there for long.”
Fixing the problems
Though veteran unemployment, particularly among young vets, remains an issue, companies across the board are attacking the problem from a variety of angles.
Earlier this year, Wal-Mart announced a sweeping plan to hire any and all honorably discharged veterans who had left the military in the last year. It was imitated by some and decried by others, but was nonetheless a substantive attempt at tackling the issue.
Many veterans who have found employment after their service — such as Leonard at the Warrior Transition Command, Hubbard at Deloitte and Kamin at the National Veterans Center — are actively working toward supporting the success of their military brethren.
Feeling the crunch of a lackluster job market and seeking to address their skills deficit, young veterans are also flocking to college in massive numbers, putting their Post-9/11 GI Bill funds to good use. In May 2012, USA Today estimated that the number of veterans signing up for education benefits has more than doubled in the past decade. Though Verra says she is overwhelmed these days with the influx of veterans in college, she also says the uptick in vet enrollment has caused many in academia to take their commitment to serving veterans more seriously.
For their own part, the military has begun pilot testing the Transition GPS program, which is meant to replace the over 20-year-old Transition Assistance Program by year’s end. The new program is supposed to be longer and more expansive, offering comprehensive guidance to departing service members, but whether it will actually be efficacious remains to be seen.
Ultimately, civilian society and veterans alike are grappling with how to best employ and support the millions of young veterans returning from service since 9/11.
“We can’t just call all veterans heroes and say, ‘Well, our job is done here,’” said Kevin Sites, a war journalist and author of several military books. “We have to thank them for the sacrifices they made and for putting their souls in jeopardy, but there’s an accountability that still has to go on.”
Disclosure: Valerie Verra, in her role as veterans services administrator at American University, offered guidance on the “Half the Battle” survey.
Disclosure: Hubbard’s views are purely personal and are not reflective of Deloitte or any of its subsidiaries.