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Leon Kaye headshot

Underemployment Still a Huge Challenge Veterans Face in Their Post-Military Lives

By Leon Kaye
veterans underemployment

With Veterans Day just over a week away, there is some good news about how U.S. veterans are faring within the jobs market. On one hand, the unemployment gap between veterans and the rest of the population has narrowed somewhat: Only the 18 to 34 age group has unemployment rates higher than the non-veteran population, according to RecruitMilitary, a job site focused on getting veterans hired. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) also recently painted a rosy employment picture for veterans in the workplace. But the Bureau's macroeconomic numbers never accurately portray what many U.S. workers face: underemployment. That’s especially true for veterans today.

In recent years, underemployment has remained as a stubborn problem that is affecting veterans of all ages. Based on data from Penn State’s Veterans Metrics Initiative, almost two-thirds of veterans say their largest challenge in transitioning to post-military life is underemployment, whether they work in jobs that don't match their skills or are forced to work more than one job to keep a roof over their heads.

One ongoing problem is that while many companies may say they are keen on hiring veterans, the reality is that their human resources departments all too often still seek out “corporate types” — and veterans and other talented employees often don’t fit in that box. A story about a friend of mine, “Aaron,” sums up what too many veterans face once they continue their journey into civilian life.

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Aaron served in the U.S. Marines. As he told me: “I’m not a former Marine or ex-military. Once you’re a Marine, you’re always a Marine.” What to us may seem like innocuous greetings aren’t his thing, either: “I really don’t want to hear, ‘Thank you for your service,’" he said. "I signed up for that; I served; the end.’” Aaron has served in Afghanistan and had many experiences that were undoubtedly traumatic, but he keeps them to himself.

To say he’s articulate is an understatement. Aaron pays attention to details at a rate that would make most of our eyeballs roll back and then fall out of our heads. He is brilliant at explaining any issue, and he’s a fantastic writer. Aaron also has PTSD (not an assumption, he has said so), struggles containing his anger and has his fair share of anti-social tendencies. Nevertheless, his brilliance at getting into the weeds and minutiae of it all would make him an exceptional coder or attorney or any number of highly skilled roles. 

But in a corporate environment that runs on collaboration, synergy, agility and alignment (which, to be fair, no corporate employee who has blurted out those terms has ever been able to explain what those four words really mean), Aaron would not be a fit in a corporate office. He could, however, be fantastic as a remote employee, where he could work on his terms (he has trouble sleeping and his best writing is done late at night); whether the projects involve writing long, highly-detailed reports, crunching those financial numbers or parsing through code, he’d be an asset.

Bottom line: The private sector is failing Aaron and other veterans. They’re failing him and his peers at one of the most valuable traits of veterans: loyalty. Veterans clearly feel loyal to the U.S. — obviously that is why many of them say they served in the first place — but it’s clear that loyalty isn’t returned once they start working within companies. Companies and their HR departments generally are not equipped to work with veterans on their transition back into civilian life. Even though many employers may describe veterans as high performers or assets to the company, something is getting lost in translation. One survey revealed that 44 percent of them stayed at their first post-military job less than year; 20 percent said they left that first job before they hit six months. To put the onus of those statistics on veterans and their character traits is unfair.

Aaron sums up the challenge younger military veterans face: A 2019 Pew Research study reported that post-9/11 veterans are having a more difficult time adjusting to civilian life, which isn't surprising considering what occurred in Iraq, Afghanistan and, for some American soldiers, now in Ukraine.

True, the U.S. government could do more to tackle this underemployment problem. “If you take what the entire U.S. government spends [for veterans services], which is about $300 billion, less than one-tenth of 1 percent of that spending ... goes to employment, which is kind of crazy for a lot of reasons,” Dan Goldenberg, executive director of the Call of Duty Endowment Program, explained to a San Antonio TV station this summer. “It’s a force multiplier if we can … spend a little bit of money, if we doubled it to two-tenths of 1 percent of the federal veterans’ fund, we would double the amount of support we could give veterans in landing those high-quality jobs.”

Public-private partnerships can certainly help bridge the veterans’ underemployment gap. One of them is between the Veterans Administration and Galvanize, which runs technical bootcamps that retrain members of the U.S. military so they can find jobs as software engineers — careers they can take just about anywhere, including working from home as they ease into employment within the private sector.

Image credit: Joel Rivera-Camacho via Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye