THE BLOG

Veterans Become Protected Class: A Double-Edged Sword

02/18/2015 11:46 am ET | Updated Apr 20, 2015

Did you ever think a career choice could determine whether or not you are legally defined as a protected class? On March 24, this becomes fact as changes are made to the Vietnam Era Veterans' Readjustment Assistance Act (VEVRAA).

This act requires covered federal government contractors and subcontractors to take affirmative action to employ and promote veterans protected by the Act and prohibits discrimination against veterans. The new mandate becomes enforceable as part of a company's 2015 Affirmative Action plan and established a hiring benchmark commensurate with the national veteran population, or 7.2 percent.

For me, this news is a double-edged sword. My work centers around inspiring and convincing companies to hire veterans. Too many companies falsely believe veterans will be a liability, and so they tend to shy away from us. The new law puts some muscle behind the need to hire veterans, yet there is a real problem when veterans need the government to force companies to act.

The unemployment numbers of veterans are jaw-dropping when you compare them to the same age group of non-veterans. For professionals under the age of 30, the national unemployment rate stands at a tolerable 6.6 percent. Yet among veterans of the same age group, a November 2014 Bureau of Labor Statistics reported an unemployment rate of 9.8 percent.

How did we get here? Think about this: after World War II the numbers were reversed and unemployment for veterans was half that of civilians. The main reason for this was because most of the men hiring were veterans themselves, and it wasn't hard to imagine what skills were brought to the table.

Today, with less of the population in active service -- and fewer veterans in a corporate position to bring an understanding of how military service translates to very real civilian job skills -- we have a situation where those with the power to change assign less value to what they do not understand.

That may be why, in addition to a higher unemployment rate, most veterans earn less than their non-veteran peers, too. And so we find ourselves in the incredibly disorienting position of creating an affirmative action group predicated on previous employment, or military service.

What is encouraging about the new VEVRAA mandate is the fact that the language is deliberately ambiguous. In other words, the goal is given, but the writers figured out that each company will have a different path towards meeting this goal... and their odds of success are greatly improved when they are free to drive themselves to the goal. It recalls for me the words of World War II General George S. Patton: "Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity."

VEVRAA and its new mandate cannot educate employers, though. What will make a difference is when companies understand and accept that military service does not equate a "resume gap."

Hard as it is for me to admit, discrimination against veterans does exist. Distilled down to the simplest form, the veteran employment issue points to a lack of understanding between veterans and employers. And with a lack of empathy comes discrimination. No one ever imagined that serving your country could create a negative employment outcome, yet it has. And so the VEVRAA mandate was created to solve that problem.

But as with any big problem, the solution does not lie with one company or government agency. There are many facets to this issue, and a shared responsibility. The fact of the matter is that unless more companies take purposeful steps to hire young, "protected" veterans -- like Goldman Sachs, as one example -- we will not see a meaningful positive change for veterans in transition.

This is not a handful of employees. An entire generation of a workforce hangs in the balance. When the new VEVRAA mandate becomes enforceable on March 24, I can only hope that companies are ready to meet the goal. I look forward to being surprised by their ingenuity. Until I am, though, there's more work to do.

Nick Swaggert is the Director of Genesis10's Veteran Program. An infantry officer with the United States Marine Corps from 1999-2010, Swaggert's first-hand knowledge of veterans' strengths, challenges and culture has prepared him to identify new opportunities for companies and veterans to serve one another.