Two years ago, Marc McComas was dodging bullets in Iraq, focused on the daily pressures of intense combat and keeping his 30-member platoon section on task. Today, the former sergeant faces a new kind of pressure: finding a job.
The 40-year-old McComas has spent 15 of the past 20 years on active military duty abroad or as a member of the National Guard. Since his guard contract ended last February, he has spent most days online looking for work as an office manager or human resources director near his Vienna, W. Va., home. “With 15 years in the army, tons of management experience, and a four-year degree, I figured it would be kind of a cinch to get a job,” McComas told The Fiscal Times this week.
But so far, McComas, like hundreds of thousands of other vets, has had no luck. He sent out nearly 400 resumes and networked through the Veterans of Foreign Wars, but he has landed only three interviews – none of which led to even the hint of a job offer. When he was between jobs in the past, he received $60,000 a year in salary from his National Guard service. But reenlisting isn’t an option for McComas, who lost some of his hearing and incurred shoulder, knee, ankle, and tendon damage during his 15-month Iraq tour.
“I can’t really understand why nobody wants to talk to me when I’m able and ready to talk to them,” McComas said.
McComas is among the approximately 815,000 unemployed veterans competing for jobs as the U.S. economy crawls back from the deepest recession in modern history. The overall veteran unemployment rate is 7.5 percent – almost a full percentage point lower than the current national rate of 8.3 percent. But that is highly misleading. Unemployment rates are slightly higher – 9.1 percent – for Afghanistan and Iraq War veterans and significantly higher for young veterans aged 18 to 24, who registered a 20.2 percent unemployment rate in January, more than double the national average. Many of these younger vets lack college or even high school degrees and find it more difficult to qualify for available jobs.
Although the U.S. job market is slowly improving, the situation is tough for veterans and will get even tougher, especially as about one million more service members and women exit the military during the next five years and flood the job market, according to Labor Department estimates.
“I don’t expect there to be enough jobs to absorb the huge increase in incoming veterans, which should concern everyone who benefits from the great sacrifices these people make for their country,” said Patrick Bellon, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, a veteran advocacy group. “They’ve paid dues that others haven’t.”
The glut of men and women returning from highly dangerous and often debilitating deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan with little or no prospects for finding work is one of the most visible and troubling downsides to the Obama administration’s efforts to wind down two costly wars. Experts say that many of these returning men and women find it difficult to adjust to the civilian world after years of multiple deployments. Many of these vets struggle with emotional problems, post-traumatic stress disorders, and the challenges of persuading prospective employers that their military skills are applicable to civilian tasks.
“They’re coming back to civilian life and it’s a different form of life,” said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Maryland, a member of the Budget and Small Business Committees who has delved into the employment problem. “It’s not as structured as the military or government. It’s extremely challenging. These are young people, by and large. So it’s an adjustment factor.”
That pool of returning veterans will begin to swell because of White House plans to shrink the defense budget and manpower for the first time since 1998. About 170,000 troops were deployed to Iraq at peak times during the nine-year war, but as of last December only about 150 troops remained.
About a tenth of the 101,000-troops stationed in Afghanistan returned to the U.S. in 2011, and another 23,000 are scheduled to leave by next September. Nearly all of the Afghanistan personnel will exit by a 2014 deadline, although many active-duty members will transition from combat to training roles before that point, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last week.
The troubling plight of unemployed veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has drawn the close attention of the White House and lawmakers, especially as the 2012 election approaches. In a rare display of political unanimity, President Obama and congressional Republicans and Democrats pushed through legislation last November to create tax credits for companies that hire jobless veterans and to increase spending for job-training and counseling. Companies that hire disabled veterans who have looked for work for more than six months can qualify for as much as $9,600 in credits for each hire under the new law.
In the fiscal 2013 budget he will release next week, President Obama will also call for $5 billion in grant money to local police and fire departments to encourage them to hire Iraq and Afghanistan-war veterans. The Department of Veterans Affairs has also launched a series of new employment programs, including “VA for Vets,” which encourages the department itself to hire veterans, as well as sponsoring regional job fairs.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs committee, said it is essential that the government takes steps to insure that returning vets get a fair shake and that “what they learned to do in the military with our taxpayer dollars [is transferred] into good work experience” back home.
The complex barriers facing young veterans in the job market can’t entirely be solved with tax credits and grants, according to veterans’ advocates. One of the biggest tasks ahead for young veterans is learning to market their military skills as viable assets to hiring managers, said Craig Roberts, a spokesman for the American Legion. “There’s a real language barrier,” Roberts said. “If someone says they do something in the military, that isn’t necessarily understood by a civilian hiring manager.”
Resume polishing and interview coaching can help, Roberts said, but he worries that the job market won’t be willing or able to absorb a huge influx of veterans. “With a couple hundred thousand guys coming back, many of them young, the next couple of years are going to be challenging no matter what we do,” he said.
And veterans returning from active duty are finding it a mixed blessing to continue service in the National Guard or reserves. Many employers are increasingly reluctant to hire them because they can be called away with little notice, says Ted Daywalt, CEO and president of VetJobs.com. At one time there was more certainty about when members of the guard or reserves would be called up and for how long. But the Department of Defense in 2007 altered its call-up policy for National Guard and Reserve brigades by eliminating a provision that members’ cumulative time on active duty could not exceed 24 months.
“Employers didn’t mind it so much when their employees in the Guard were gone for just 30 days,” Daywalt said. “But when they’re gone for a year, and can be called up more than once, that’s a different ball game.”
Some lawmakers also say that veterans have been hurt by reductions or freezes in the size of the federal workforce. The federal government has a preference policy for hiring veterans, and about a quarter of all federal workers have served in the military. “When you can get preferential hiring in the federal agencies, as we do, that helps a lot,“ said Sen. Jay D. Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee. Even more devastating, layoffs at the U.S. Postal Service will certainly take a toll. The USPS is the single largest employer of veterans, who make up 22 percent of the workforce.