The mind-numbing debt ceiling debate dominated headlines for what seems like all summer. That changed a bit today, when President Obama announced his New Veterans’ Employment Initiative at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. This call to action couldn’t come at a more crucial time – according to the Bureau of Labor, 12.4 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan vets are unemployed, as of July. That is more than three percentage points higher than the national average. Last time we polled IAVA’s membership, they reported close to 20 percent unemployment. In states like Michigan, Indiana and Minnesota, that figure is as high as nearly 30 percent.
In real numbers, that’s only about 232,000 new veterans struggling to find work. That’s a number small enough that if our nation really focused on it, we could make a real dent. Especially when you consider a company like Walmart employs more than 2 million people alone. We all know most of the jobs (for veterans, and anyone else) have to come from the private sector. But Washington can play a critical role too.
President Obama’s New Veterans’ Employment Initiative is a big step in the right direction. The proposed Returning Heroes and Wounded Warrior tax credits would give business owners financial incentive to hire unemployed veterans. He challenged the private sector to hire or train 100,000 unemployed veterans or their spouses by 2013, something headed by Joining Forces, the White House’s national initiative program. And the transition from the military to the civilian workplace will be eased by refined and enhanced career development programs at local One-Stop Career Centers.
The New Veterans’ Employment Initiative would have a huge impact on the lives of people like Nick Colgin, an IAVA Member Veteran who the President mentioned in his speech today. While serving in Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne Division as a combat medic, Colgin saved the life of a French soldier that was shot in the head, and was ultimately awarded the Bronze Star for his actions over the course of his deployment. Yet when Colgin got back from his tour, he was unable to find a job anywhere in the medical field. He was looking to work as a first responder in Wyoming, which was the equivalent of what he did overseas, but employers said he lacked the proper credentials and certificates. This is the type of red tape the President talked about cutting through, and an example of the civilian-military divide that needs to be bridged.
These aren’t just public sector problems or private sector problems, or veteran problems or civilian problems. They are American problems that we all need to address together. And the President needs to continue to help too. He must use the bully pulpit to make that case to all Americans that hiring a veteran is more than just charity, it’s a smart business investment. Many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans already have unparalleled experience in leadership, human capital, project management and fiscal oversight. They are also early technology adopters, extremely resourceful and function well in teams. They have the skills every business needs. And of course, they’re tough. If a young Marine can command a platoon under fire in Fallujah, he can definitely run a trading floor on Wall Street. If America really wants to support the troops, hire them.
The President and Congress aren’t getting along right now, that’s no big secret. But come September, passing a veterans’ job bill and putting into action this Initiative must be something leaders from both sides of the aisle prioritize. In a time of war, our veterans deserve no less.
To help lower high rates of new veteran unemployment, IAVA recently launched the Combat to Career initiative. This yearlong program brings the public and private sectors together to implement innovative solutions for reducing new veteran unemployment by Veterans Day 2011. To learn more about the Combat to Career program, click here. Then spread the word on Facebook or Twitter.
Paul Rieckhoff is the Executive Director and Founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and the author of Chasing Ghosts. This editorial is a follow-up to “VOW to Hire Our Heroes,” an article originally posted on July 17, 2011.