Young male veterans, aged 18-24, have historically had higher rates of unemployment than other men their age. This has been true during peacetime and in war since 9/11, but also before. In 2010, these vets had an unemployment rate of about 22 percent, a figure not statistically different from other young men but still more than twice the national average.
That number has understandably startled politicians and the public. Last week, President Obama unveiled a host of job proposals aimed at doing right by America's war vets at a time when it seems many of them are facing graver challenges in the labor market than they did in conflict zones.
"Our incredible servicemen and women need to know that America values them not simply for what they can do in uniform, but for what they can do when they come home," the president said. He then announced proposals to offer tax credits to companies that hire vets and to create a kind of "reverse boot camp" for separating soldiers as they transition to civilian life.
The president's speech at the Washington Navy Yard tapped into the idea that America owes a special responsibility to its veterans, even as unemployment for many demographics remains at dismal heights. But what if the needs of transitioning soldiers aren't all that different from the rest of the labor force? You might never hear a politician suggest this, but economists do.
David Loughran, a senior economist with the RAND Corporation, points out that veterans generally have lower unemployment on average than the rest of the population. It's the younger group — the 18-to-24 year olds — for whom the reverse is true. Loughran suspects this is primarily because veterans in that age group are likely to have recently left the military and to be out looking for new work at much higher rates than their peers. And, well, it takes time to find a job.
"In my opinion, that's the overwhelming reason why veteran unemployment is higher," Loughran said. "And if that's the overwhelming reason, then I'm not really sure what the right policy response is to that beyond what's already being done. There's only so much you can do. You can say, 'This is how you make a resumé, this is how you look on the computer to find jobs that might meet your skills. ...' I'm not sure there's anything that unique about being a veteran in that context. It's more about being young and looking for a job."
There's not much evidence the military's existing Transition Assistance Program helps anyone. In fact, Matt Flavin, director of the White House Veterans, Military Families and Wounded Warrior Task Force, wrote on the White House blog that his own trip through the three-day course was a memorable experience — "if only because I hadn't seen overhead projectors and transparencies used since I was in grade school."
But as officials consider revamping the program into some kind of intense civilian job-training boot camp, it's worth noting that the problem of persistent veteran unemployment is not as dire as the public perception of it. As that 18-to-24-year-old cohort later becomes a class of, say, 30-to-36-year-old civilian workers, Loughran says the unemployment gap between veterans and non-vets disappears. If the gap lasted for years, then we should be more troubled, Loughran says.
"That suggests this is an issue about transition; it's not something about, well, people who are in the military receive all this training, but it's completely useless in the civilian sector, so they're hopelessly behind their civilian peers and will never catch up," he said. "I think that view has no support in the data."
Recently separated veterans also automatically qualify for unemployment compensation, meaning they may have more flexibility to take time finding the right job than a recently graduated college student with massive loan debt. (And who would begrudge vets who've just come out of combat the chance to take this government benefit and its accompanying recovery time?)
All of this doesn't mean the military's existing initiative doesn't need improving. Erin Silva examined the Transition Assistance Program for her master's thesis at the University of Rhode Island. She discovered something Matt Flavin may have already suspected: Soldiers who do attend the program's employment workshops don't seem to have a leg up in employment outcomes.
"It's really sad that it doesn't work, that I came to the conclusion that I did," Silva said of the program. "I was hoping if somebody did come across [this research], they would say, 'These are things that are wrong with it, changes do need to be made.'"
For starters, she suggests the program should bring in actual employers and human-resource professionals to teach interview and job-search skills. And Loughran adds that we still need to learn more about the impact on employment of the rising incidence of injuries like post-traumatic stress disorder.
He is skeptical that any "reverse boot camp" will be designed in such a way that researchers will be able to track and measure its effectiveness, but the idea may be a public relations victory anyway.
"It's a very sympathetic group," Loughran said. "It's natural for the public to have this idea that this is a special group that needs special attention. But I'm not sure the data necessarily support that."