Eight years ago, in the wake of the Great Recession, unemployment rates for the latest generation of veterans had spiked to crisis levels.

Leaders across federal and state governments, some of America’s most well-known companies and veterans service organizations sprang into action. They formed veteran hiring coalitions, marshaled resources to help post-9/11 veterans, conducted academic research, passed new rules and legislation, and instituted vet recruiting quotas and goals.

Eight years later, unemployment among post-9/11 veterans is the lowest it’s ever been.

For the first time ever, the unemployment rate for the latest generation of veterans dropped below 4 percent in 2018, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The 3.8-percent annual unemployment rate for 2018 continues a seven-year trend of declines since 2011, when post-9/11 veteran unemployment peaked at 12.1 percent – more than triple the 2018 rate.

For veterans of all generations, the unemployment rate was similarly low, dropping to 3.5 percent from 3.7 percent last year.

These figures are below what economists have traditionally considered “full employment,” and some would say it’s worth celebrating — especially since the 3.8-percent rate was on par with nonveterans in 2018. And nationally, the economy is looking up, with the U.S. hitting three consecutive months of a 3.7 percent unemployment rate last year, a low the country hadn’t seen since the 1960s.

“Right now, I would say it’s a massively good time to look and find something,” said Robert Lerman, a labor economist at the Urban Institute. The declining veteran unemployment rate, in particular, “calls for a big celebration.” “It’s also something that we want to try to sustain, which is the harder part, but you know for now, jobs are plentiful, and that’s a lot better than jobs not being plentiful,” he said.

But what the data doesn’t show, Lerman and others point out, is whether those jobs represent meaningful, gainful employment — and whether they fully utilize veterans’ skill sets. That, advocates say, is where we should focus next.

Not the full story

“The conversations and focuses of employers, as well as those who serve veterans in this space, are shifting from, ‘Let’s make sure you get a job’ to ‘Let’s make sure the job is a good fit,’” said Nick Armstrong, senior director of research and policy at the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University.

Armstrong said he looks at the federal unemployment rate as a good “high-level indicator.” But it doesn’t tell the full story. “I’d be hesitant to call victory by any stretch of the imagination,” he said.

The unemployment rate captured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics is based on responses to the Current Population Survey. Veterans and others who are considered “employed” by the government include those working part-time, as well as full-time. The data also don’t capture those who have given up on finding work.

It’s really just a small piece of the puzzle, said Eric Eversole, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Hiring Our Heroes initiative and a Navy reservist. His organization is currently working on a survey intended to give more insight into veterans’ job outcomes, such as salaries and other measures of success. It will also measure how well companies are retaining their veteran employees.

A 2016 Hiring Our Heroes study found that 44 percent of veterans leave their first post-military job within the first year. Part of the explanation there could be underemployment, or settling for a job below your skill level just to keep a paycheck coming in.

Armstrong said underemployment is a common complaint among veterans who transition into the civilian workforce.

Army veteran and military spouse Maureen Elias knows about this all too well. At face value, the low unemployment rate ”looks and sounds like America is taking care of her veterans,” she said in an email. But her own experiences finding employment in the civilian workforce haven’t been easy.

Before getting out of the military, she said, “I was told over and over, ‘They will be knocking on your door to give you a job. You served your country and employers want to give back to their country by hiring veterans’ and that as a former counterintelligence agent, I would be able to make a good wage, and my skills were highly in demand. That was so not what happened.”

For a year, she struggled to find a job and was told her military skills best suited her for work as a secretary. Eventually, she ended up working part-time as a gift wrapper at a department store.

“What a change, going from a highspeed counterintelligence agent, who spoke fluent Korean, to a gift wrapper,” she said. “And what an underutilization of my skills.”

Moving forward

Elias eventually used her Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to attend college and now works as an advocate in the mental health field. But she’s still shocked at how little the Army prepared her for finding employment as a civilian, she said.

Bridging that gap by boosting military and civilian partnerships could be the key to getting veterans into meaningful jobs, said Eversole, whose organization has helped drive many companies’ efforts to recruit veteran employees over the last several years.

“There’s no doubt that we have helped the country, especially the business community, understand the tremendous skillset that service members bring to their business,” he said.

As part of the Defense Department’s SkillBridge Program, Hiring Our Heroes runs the Corporate Fellowship Program, which has placed hundreds of transitioning service members in partner companies to get on-the-job training for 12 weeks before they leave the military. IVMF also runs a technology training program on 18 installations.

“I think the real next step is really fine-tuning how we help create economic pathways for young men and women prior to joining the military and making sure they have the skillsets throughout their military service to achieve their long-term economic dreams,” Eversole said.

Ideally, this would mean integrating information about future employment prospects into the recruitment process, he said. “I still think we have a ways to go to help underscore that military service is not only about serving your country — and that’s certainly a noble pursuit — but we also have to think about military service as a long-term pathway to economic stability for you and your family,” Eversole said.

Armstrong said it’s good to see veteran unemployment is not the “dire situation” that it once was. But he hopes people won’t stop being concerned about it.

You never know when the economy could take a turn for the worse, he said, so it’s important to keep up the support for veterans and the successful employment partnerships that have come out of the last decade. Now, he said, the focus should be more on keeping the unemployment rate low “and what can we do to … advance the long-term employment situation,” he said.

Military Times contributor and former reporter Natalie Gross hosts the Spouse Angle podcast. She grew up in a military family and has a master's degree in journalism from Georgetown University.

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