The U.S. economy has improved significantly over the past several years, and veterans now find themselves in a much better place than the years immediately following the recession.
Americans do a lot to celebrate veterans for their service fighting for the country. But transitioning veterans to good careers after their service has been a problem. Federal and private organizations, working in tandem with the improving economy, have done a lot to help veterans in the workforce.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released an annual report Thursday which found the unemployment rate for all veterans hit its lowest point in almost two decades by declining to 3.7 percent in 2017. The overall unemployment rate is 4.1 percent. But there is still a large percentage of veterans not participating in the workforce.
“My thoughts are this is a pretty good report in general,” Jeffrey Wenger, senior researcher at the policy analysis nonprofit RAND Corporation, told InsideSources. “The labor market seems to be improving for everyone and improving in general for veterans.”
The Great Recession and the sluggish recovery that followed proved to be a major setback for veterans. It was sparked by the subprime mortgage crisis and the financial crisis of 2007. The unemployment rate for veterans reached its peak of 8.7 percent by 2010 – compared with 9.4 percent for nonveterans.
“Now you see from the BLS it runs significantly under what you see from the population at large,” Charles Sevola, vice president for veteran initiatives at the insurance company Prudential, told InsideSources. “Obviously, great progress has been made.”
Former President Barack Obama started to see steady improvements across the economy in his final few years in office. The economy is still improving but now there are substantially more job opportunities for veterans and civilians alike. President Donald Trump entered office last year with a focus on workers and the economy.
“When the economy was really bad, veterans suffered just like everyone else,” Wenger said. “Generally they are younger and we were really concerned with the ones transitioning out of active duty and into the civilian workforce. So as the economy has improved, that has improved for both veteran and non-veteran populations.”
Sevola notes that since the recession there has been more of a focus on veteran issues – terming it a call to arms. He adds that government agencies and private initiatives began ramping up their efforts to help veterans starting around 2010. He believes the bad economy and service members coming home from war both likely played a role.
The Department of Labor (DOL) and other government agencies have been at the forefront of assisting veterans in the workforce. They have implemented services and workshops to help veterans find jobs and gain skills that help them more easily transition to the workforce.
The federal government isn’t alone when it comes to groups working to help veterans. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, other business associations, and corporations have started their own programs aimed at assisting veterans. The American Legion and other veterans associations have also launched employment initiatives.
“I contribute a lot of this stuff to the work the Department of Labor has been doing along with other agencies,” Ariel De Jesus, assistant director for veteran employment and education at The American Legion, told InsideSources. “It’s gotten a lot better. Not to mention, obviously, the improving economy. That means there are more jobs available out there. It definitely gives our veterans and service members more opportunities.”
Prudential President John Strangfeld is one such corporate leader that decided to make veterans a priority not long after the recession. The company soon after released a report detailing issues veterans face when transitioning into the workforce. It has also launched an initiative focused on helping veterans find good jobs.
“We have a number of programs on education and employment, leadership, corporate philanthropy, and employee engagement all geared towards addressing these issues that veterans have,” Sevola, who leads the veterans initiative program, said. “I use Prudential as an example, but there are many examples like it where corporate America has put their shoulder into this problem to make a difference.”
The labor force participation rate for veterans is still a lot lower than the general population despite having a better unemployment rate. It stands at around 49 percent compared to 63 percent for the general population. Wenger states the lower participation rate isn’t a problem when considering how many older veterans there are.
“I think it’s an artifact of the demographics,” Wenger said. “If you count all veterans as the denominator, then you get almost a third of all veterans having aged out of the labor force by and large.”
The unemployment rate doesn’t count people who are no longer considered part of the labor market due to long-term joblessness. The labor force participation rate, in contrast, tracks the number of employed and those actively seeking work as a percentage of the total population. But that means many might be retired or student adults.
“The issue isn’t getting people jobs, it’s getting them good jobs that match their skills,” Wenger said. “Those are the kinds of complaints we are hearing now. Jobs are there, the unemployment rate is low, but job match and job quality is still a concern.”
Wenger adds that veteran advocates have started to turn their attention away from employment and more towards turnover and job matching. He states that veterans want to use the skills they developed in the military. The economy generally could also benefit when those skills are effectively utilized.
“Sometimes it has to do with how the job they had in the military translates to the civilian space,” American Legion spokesman Joe Plenzler told InsideSources. “A truck driver in the military, or photographer, those things tend to translate a little bit more easily.”
Wenger also argues that more can be done to help change how veterans are viewed in society. He notes that they know how to follow orders, have developed strong soft skills, have leadership qualities, and are physically fit. Sevola adds that many in society have a negative perception of the talents and skills veterans bring to the workforce despite that.
“We have absolutely made progress but that is in no means an excuse to declare victory because there is much more to do,” Sevola said. “We have a lot to do to change those perceptions and narrative out there. There is a portion of the population that believes it.”
Wenger adds that many people don’t understand how hard it is to get into the military. Those who do manage to get in almost always have to be good test takers and physically fit. Wenger notes that he isn’t surprised things are improving for veterans in the workforce given that selection process.