Serving Those Who Have Served Us: Barriers to Employment and Workforce Solutions for Veterans

By Caitlin C. Schnur, Workforce Research and Policy Fellow, National Transitional Jobs Network


Veterans Day is a time to celebrate all of the U.S. military veterans who have bravely served our country.  Since 2001, America has deployed over two million troops to Afghanistan and Iraq.  When these servicemen and women come home, they deserve to return to healthy and fulfilling civilian lives that include the opportunity to obtain gainful employment.  Although most post-9/11 veterans transition successfully back to civilian life, too many will have to cope with a different reality—especially when it comes to employment. According to an analysis of recent employment data by Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families, in September 2013, post-9/11 veterans faced an unemployment rate of 10.1%—almost three percentage points higher than the national average.  It’s likely that there are even more out-of-work veterans with barriers to employment who are not counted in official unemployment statistics.  What’s worse, about half of all unemployed post-9/11 veterans having been out of work for 15 or more weeks.  As veterans move toward the ranks of the long-term unemployed, their future employment prospects only diminish.  The evidence shows that workers who have been out of a job for about 24 or more weeks find it exceptionally difficult to reenter the workforce.

The unemployment problem is even more dire among younger veterans.  In September 2013, the unemployment rate among post-9/11 veterans ages 20 to 24 was a staggering 22.5%, which is substantially higher than the unemployment rate of 12.4% among their non-veteran peers.  Over the past seven years, the unemployment situation of young veterans has grown increasingly worse relative to their non-veteran counterparts, suggesting that these young veterans experience unique barriers to employment.  At the National Transitional Jobs Network, we believe that every person, including all veterans, deserves the opportunity to work and support themselves and their families.  That’s why we’re taking this Veterans Day to examine the barriers to employment that veterans (especially young, post-9/11 veterans) face when they return home—and talk about how America can help get these heroes back to work.

Veterans can face an array of employment barriers.  For one, despite carrying out important military responsibilities, young veterans may have limited civilian work experience.  As a result, employers may assume that young veterans, like other young jobseekers, are less skilled and less work-ready than more seasoned candidates.  Veterans may also struggle to “market” their military skills to employers who are unfamiliar with military work, making it difficult for veterans to find onramps into the civilian workforce.  

Post-9/11 veterans are also likely to have service-related physical wounds or mental health conditions that make finding and keeping a job more difficult.  As of 2009, an estimated 300,000 returning veterans have suffered mild Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), an often “invisible” physical wound that can have mental health implications.  As the signature wound of the recent wars, TBI can be a potentially chronic, difficult-to-diagnose condition that can lead to headaches, dizziness, and memory problems that may impair a veteran’s ability to succeed in work.  Extremity injuries, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and depression are also common among new veterans.

Having a disability also puts veterans at a higher risk of experiencing homelessness, which makes it difficult to find and retain employment and engage in other supportive services.  As of 2009, over 900 post-9/11 veterans had accessed Veterans Affairs (VA) homeless services, and the VA estimated that nearly 3,000 more veterans were at-risk of homelessness.  Although this number may not seem exceptionally high, one study has found that most Vietnam veterans who eventually became homeless reported that at least 10 years passed between when they left military service and when they began to experience homelessness.  Because post-9/11 veterans are comparable to Vietnam veterans, this suggests that homelessness could be a growing future trend among more recent veterans.

Finally, it’s important to remember that female veterans—who have lower employment rates than male veterans overall—face their own set of barriers to employment.  For example, female veterans are more likely than male veterans to be single parents.  Having young children can make it more difficult to find and keep a job if childcare is not readily available or affordable, a barrier to work that may be especially pronounced for single parents.  Female veterans are also more likely to have been victims of military sexual assault, which can have negative mental and physical health consequences such as depression, substance use, and PTSD that can make it harder to find and maintain employment.

While veterans deserve to be supported in all aspects of their transition back to civilian life, assisting veterans in their efforts to find and maintain work is imperative.  One form of employment-related support that may be appropriate for some veterans is the Transitional Jobs (TJ) strategy, which combines real, wage-paid work with job skills training and supportive services.  As a strategy that has improved the employment and earnings of many populations with barriers to employment, Transitional Jobs programs—especially when they’re customized to take into account veterans’ needs, such as identifying and managing service-related trauma or coaching veterans in how to pitch their military experience to civilian employers —can help veterans earn income and gain a foothold in the civilian labor market.  Veterans have made great sacrifices in service to America, and now it’s our turn to help them realize the American Dream.

In the coming months, the NTJN will continue to explore promising workforce solutions for veterans with barriers to employment.  In the meantime, here are some resources for practitioners, advocates, and policymakers:

New Veterans in Illinois: A Call to Action, Social IMPACT Research Center, 2012

Using the Transitional Jobs Strategy to Help Chronically Unemployed Veterans, Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, 2009

Veteran Employment Leading Practices Toolkit, Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University, 2013

Veterans’ Employment and Training Service (VETS), U.S. Department of Labor

Military to Civilian Occupation Translator, U.S. Department of Labor


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About National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity

Heartland Alliance’s National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity is dedicated to ending chronic unemployment and poverty. We believe that every person deserves the opportunity to succeed in work and support themselves and their families. Through our field building, we provide support and guidance that fosters more effective and sustainable employment efforts. Our policy and advocacy work advances solutions to the systemic issues that drive chronic unemployment.

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