Employment Issues Facing Returning Veterans


There is no doubt that returning veterans have a higher unemployment rate than civilians.  In 2011, the Bureau of Labor Statistics listed the civilian unemployment rate at 8.7 percent, while the rate for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars was 12.1 percent.  The difference in unemployment rates for civilians and returning veterans was even more glaring for veterans between the ages of 18 and 24.  Their unemployment rate was 30.2 percent compared to 16.1 percent for civilians in the same age group.  Granted, many of these young veterans may have gone back to school, but the same can be said for similarly aged civilians.

What are the Issues Preventing Returning Veterans From Finding Jobs?

Several studies have been done on the issue, and this article cites both the Prudential study and the study done by Volunteers of America.

1.  Lack of Preparation:  Many of the veterans interviewed talked about a lack of preparation for civilian life.  According to the Prudential study, 66% of veterans indicate they had some sort of Transition Assistance Program (TAP), while 34% indicated they had no training whatsoever for entering civilian life.  Of the 66% who had a TAP program, most felt it was perfunctory and completely inadequate.  When service members leave the military, they need training.  This is especially true of young people who entered the service right out of high school and have limited civilian work experience.  They need to learn how to write a resumeˊ and how to translate their military skills into civilian skills.  They need to learn how to describe their skills in ways that will be attractive to a civilian employer.  Qualities like: problem solving, leadership, ethics and time management are inherently part of the veteran’s skill set, and veterans need to learn how to convey those qualities to employers in a meaningful way.

2.  Unrealistic Expectations:  Many veterans have unrealistic expectations about the type of employment they can expect when they return to civilian life.  These expectations are often fostered by the military.  Recruiters seeking to convince young people to join up promise career training.  Military training programs work to instill confidence, to make service members aware that they are well trained and highly skilled in their fields.  That confidence is necessary, but it can get in the way of finding a civilian job later. 

A VOA service worker described an instance that illustrates the point.  A returning veteran applied for an upper level administrative position with a civilian company.  He thought his experience supervising over 300 troops in Iraq provided him with the necessary experience.  The prospective employer disagreed.  He thought that managing troops deployed over a wide area of Iraq was nothing like the day to day management of a building full of office workers with conflicting viewpoints and opinions on how to get the job done.  The employer simply did not understand how military management skills could transfer over to civilian life. The veteran did not understand that managing office workers might not be the best use of his skills. 

As one post 9/11 veteran said:
The experience you get in the military, it’s not like they come over to the civilian side.  Or where you might have certain certifications that don’t come over.  And so basically, you know, they don’t count for anything.  It’s like you’re 23/24 coming out with all this experience, but you can’t get a job.”

Returning veterans need help understanding the scope of their military training and figuring out how that training translates to a civilian job.  They need help figuring out what jobs and career fields are the best fit for them.  They also need to learn to convey their training, skills and experience to prospective employers in a way that makes sense in the civilian sector.

3.  Employer Bias:  While employers should appreciate our military service and make every effort to employ returning veterans, the opposite appears to be true.  Many employers fear that returning veterans will have mental health or physical issues that will interfere with job performance.  They fear that veterans will have difficulty adjusting to working in a civilian job.  Employers often fail to consider military service and reject veteran applicants as having a long gap in employment history.  This is one post 9/11 veteran’s description of a job interview:

And then they asked me how long ago did I leave combat zone.  And I told them like three years.  And then they told me ‘oh, then you’re good, because we don’t want to deal with guys who just came back.’ ”

4.  Inability to Shed Military Identity:  Some returning veterans report difficulty getting along with civilian coworkers.  They view the coworkers as lazy, inattentive to detail, and lacking respect.  Coping with the variety of attitudes and work ethics encountered in the civilian work force can be challenging for the returning veteran.  After years of discipline and precision, civilian attitudes may be hard to accept. 

5.  Mental Health Issues and Physical Disabilities:  Civilian employers are often unrealistically nervous about veterans with physical disabilities or mental health issues.  They often fear veterans will have unidentified mental health issues that will impact them on the job.  As one veteran put it, they are thinking “How damaged are you? During the entire interview.

How Can We Solve the Problem?

VA Programs:  Some veterans may be eligible for training programs sponsored by the VA, but not all veterans will be able to take advantage of these programs.  Criteria for the different programs vary, but for most VA programs, veterans must meet time in service requirements, have served in active military or navy, met discharge criterion, and have higher than a 10% disability rating.  The VA needs to offer vocational educational programs for all veterans returning to civilian life that teach the skills they will need to succeed in the job market.

Improved TAP programs:  Veterans and their families need to lobby for improved TAP programs that provide concrete help.  Things like one-on-one help in preparing resumes` are sorely needed, including instruction on how to describe skills in a manner attractive to civilian employers.  These programs should also include training on how to dress for an interview and how to handle interviews with employers.  Too many young veterans have had no practice interviewing for a job, and they need to develop those skills. 

Veteran Networking programs:  Veterans’ organizations need to help veterans network with one another to share resources and information about employment opportunities.  Organizations like Volunteers of America have counselors who help veterans with employment issues.

Educating Employers:  The VA and veterans’ organizations need to fund and provide education programs for civilian employers to teach them the value of hiring veterans and to dispel myths about veterans being “damaged” in some way.

As veterans, we need to help one another.  Volunteer to teach interviewing and resume` skills.  Help new veterans understand how to translate their skills to the civilian world.  We all need to do our part.

Druzin, Heather. “Former Medics Find Themselves on Bottom Rung in Civilian Field.” Stars and Stripes, 5 May 2015, www.stripes.com/news/veterans/former-medics-find-themselves-on-bottom-rung-in-civilian-field-1.344392. Accessed 20 Nov. 2016.

Druzin, Heather. “Report: Despite Hiring Efforts, Veterans Face Employment Obstacles and Civilian Disconnect.” Stars and Stripes, 12 May 2015, www.stripes.com/news/veterans/report-despite-hiring-efforts-veterans-face-employment-obstacles-and-civilian-disconnect-1.345755. Accessed 20 Nov. 2016.

Kintzle, Sara, Keeling, Mary, Xintarianos, Elizabeth, Taylor-Diggs, Kamil, Munch, Chris, Hassan, Anthony M., Castro, Carl A. “Exploring The Economic & Employment Challenges Facing U.S. Veterans: A Qualitative Study of Volunteers of America Service Providers & Veteran Clients.” Volunteers of America, May 2015, www.voa.org/pdf_files/a-study-of-volunteers-of-america-service-providers-and-veteran-client. Accessed 20 Nov. 2016.

“Veterans’ Employment Challenges perceptions and experiences of transitioning from military to civilian life.” Prudential, 2012, www.prudential.com/documents/public/VeteransEmploymentChallenges.pdf. Accessed 20 Nov. 2016.

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