Advancing a Free Society

Helping veterans

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Labor Department has just released statistics showing that young veterans have a worryingly high rate of unemployment.  Veterans aged 18-24 are unemployed at the rate of 28 percent.  Nearly three in ten of the young men and women who have risked their lives for us cannot get a job.

The rate of unemployment for veterans compares unfavorably to the already high rate for young Americans generally, which is 18%.  Both rates have increased substantially in the past year, but that of veterans much more (nearly double) than that of their civilian counterparts, jumped from 18.6% last year to 28.3% this year. 

Our economy is, of course, in an extended slump.  National average unemployment is at 9.2 percent.  But young veterans are three times more likely than the average American to be out of a job.  In fact, even disabled veterans are more likely to be employed than young veterans (disabled veteran unemployment is 18.6%).

The Veterans Administration understandably focuses more effort on support for disabled veterans.  But part of the problem fueling the high rate of unemployment for young veterans is that the media often portray all veterans as though they were disabled.  Instead of seeing them as strong, capable young men and women who contribute to something larger than their own well-being -- and are therefore premium hires -- young veterans are often portrayed as though they were all suffering from post-traumatic stress or deficient in skills needed in the civilian economy.

Even the President -- the Commander in Chief -- often talks about veterans as though they were all wards of the state, deserving of our pity but not worthy role models for our children.  That is a terrible injustice to these young men and women.

Most of us don’t know how to begin a conversation with a young veteran.  We now have the collective good manners to thank them for their service -- an enormous improvement over treatment of Vietnam veterans.  But that often creates rather than bridges distance, because we lack the keys to continue the conversation as we would with others. 

Leaping across this gap would be good for American society, and good for our veterans.  They need to be integrated back into our broader community.  Traditionally, the way Americans have integrated is in the workplace; that today’s young veterans are having such a difficult time finding jobs thus doubly excludes them. 

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has a terrific new program called Hiring Our Heroes that aims to help veterans, especially young ones.  They’re holding job three job fairs in northern California in the coming months.  For more information, their website is http://www.uschamber.com/veterans.  Another great way to get involved is through Hire Heroes, a non-profit looking for mentors to coach young veterans on finding jobs and for companies to post job listings (their website is http://www.hireheroesusa.org/).

Often even the most talented veterans don’t understand how to translate their expertise into civilian comparables.  This is especially true of young veterans; they have had responsibilities far in excess of their civilian counterparts, but rarely know how to talk about what they have done in ways that will convey the magnitude of their experience to potential employers.

You don’t need to solve the problem on a grand scale.  Just get to know a veteran.  You don’t need to know talk to them about the war, or be a counselor.  Just take an interest in their current circumstances, help them learn how to translate their military experience into the civilian workforce, give them a call and find out how they spent their long weekend, mentor them as they navigate opportunities and problems.  It would be a terrifically patriotic thing to do.