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Why employment is only half the battle for America’s veterans

The veteran unemployment rate is below that of non-veterans, but obtaining a job is only half the battle. After years spent training for battle or deployed into combat zones, most former service members still struggle to find satisfaction in a civilian work environment.

“When you join the military, you’re going to for a very specific reason. And when you’re there, whether it’s four years or for 34 years, you’ve got your mission, team, camaraderie — you have a very clear purpose in what you’re doing,” Waco Hoover, a Marine Corps veteran and chair of the “Be the One” program at the American Legion, told The Hill.

“When you transition out, all those things are not readily available, and it’s not there.”

The U.S. is seeing some of the lowest ever unemployment rates for veterans, with the Department of Labor reporting a veteran unemployment rate of only 3 percent as of February, compared to 3.6 percent for non-veterans.

Yet job satisfaction among veterans is far lower than the general population. A 2021 poll from Hill and Ponton, a veterans’ disability law firm, found that veterans were more than five times more likely to report having no satisfaction at their current job than non-veterans.

One of the symptoms of this trend is high turnover rates among veteran hires, “and the reason for that is purpose,” Hoover said.

A CareerBuilder survey conducted last year found that 22 percent of veterans report feeling “underemployed.”

“The one thing that I think is sometimes frustrating first for military members who are transitioning is you can be a very junior person in the military — first, second, third year — and you have tremendous responsibilities,” said Jeffrey Wenger, Senior Economist at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research institution.

“And you get out of the military and someone wants you to stock shelves. And so you, you’re like, ‘I know I can do better than this.’”

Another driver of veterans’ dissatisfaction appears to be career progression. More than 1 in 4 veterans believed it was not at all likely for them to advance at their current jobs, according to the survey from Hill and Ponton.

“In the civilian sector, it takes many years to work your way up through the ranks,” Wenger said.

But both the government and nonprofits are focusing more of their work on not only helping veterans get jobs, but helping connect them find fulfilling careers.

Wenger pointed to the sustained efforts to raise public awareness of their skills, experiences and the programs provided to veterans after they separated — at the federal and state level.

“I think we’ve done a better job of helping them transition into the civilian labor market,” Wenger said. “We now provide programs at the end of their service period that give them training on how to talk about the skills that they developed.”

The Labor Department provides programs aimed at helping veterans transition to, train for and advance in a civilian career, such as the Transition Assistance Program (TAP). Different programs are set up to provide extra training to veterans before separation, creating more marketable candidates.

However, whether those programs are working remains an open question.

“I would say that one of the things that’s been pretty apparent across the board with transition is just the sheer lack of actual valuable experiences that’s coming out of the transition, TAP programs,” said Nicole Tardif, public relations manager at the American Legion.

“It’s considered kind of a box check, as is the way that the program is set up, where you’re not really learning or being prepared for the civilian world, you’re really just checking the box to make sure you took the classes you were supposed to right before you get out,” Tardif added.

“There’s not a lot of forethought once you actually move into the civilian world.”

The Labor Department told The Hill it is addressing those concerns. The Employment Navigator and Partnership Program is a new effort to provide “one-on-one career assistance to interested transitioning service members, and their spouses, at select military installations worldwide,” according to the Labor Department.

Hoover says there is no “one size fits all” regarding career transitions for veterans. While changing career paths is difficult in any case, veterans face unique challenges.

“You are with a group of human beings that are your team and your family in so many respects. And depending on how long you spend there, what your job was, the connections can be incredibly deep,” Hoover said of life in the military.

“You get out, and that same dynamic doesn’t exist,” he added.

Hoover noted the challenges and opportunities facing a service member departing in their 20s will differ significantly from those in their 30s or 40s.

“We’ve got to make sure that those programs are oriented for those individuals,” he said.

And service members should start preparing for their post-military careers while they are still active.

“Beginning with the end in mind, whether that’s four years, 20 years, whatever it is, being cognizant of that along the way … will help them process and have much more perspective for what they want to do,” he said.

“It’s not just giving them information, it’s giving them the tools to be introspective and understand, ‘What do I want to do post-service?’”

Wenger encouraged veterans to manage expectations and explore their career preferences, taking advantage of the tight labor market to find a good fit.

“[As a veteran], I’m not having to take the first job offer that comes my way. I can be a little bit more selective about the kinds of things I’d like to do,” Wenger said. “And we can, you know, force employers to give you more responsibilities or at least match better to your preferences.”

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