In August 2021, the U.S. Department of Labor reported a veteran unemployment rate of 3.8%, lower than the nonveteran unemployment rate of 5.2% reported for the same month. This reflects a historical decline in veteran unemployment, but does not tell the whole story.
Underemployment is an ongoing barrier facing returning veterans, who often find it difficult to translate skills and experience gained in the military to jobs in the private sector. A report by LinkedIn found that veterans are 15.6% more likely than nonveterans to be underemployed, meaning working in roles that do not make full use of their abilities or do not meet their financial needs.
From unemployment to underemployment
In 2011, the landscape was very different. The end of the Iraq War saw a massive influx of returning servicemembers, and veteran unemployment was high — 13.3% in June 2011. The VOW to Hire Heroes Act, signed by former president Obama in November 2011, as well as the Returning Heroes Tax Credit, the post-9/11 GI Bill, various hiring incentives, and a host of other public and private initiatives were put into place to address veteran unemployment.
But underemployment rates have risen with falling unemployment rates, suggesting that initiatives aimed at helping veterans find employment opportunities have been very successful but have not prioritized appropriate, meaningful employment.
The civilian-military divide
A key factor in veteran underemployment may be the so-called civilian-military divide, a term advocacy groups use to describe the lack of understanding private-sector employers have regarding skills and experience gained in the military. Veterans are 70% more likely to take a seniority cut when moving into the private sector, despite being 160% more likely to have a graduate degree and having, on average, 4 more years of experience than their nonveteran counterparts applying for the same roles.
Some of this may even come down to semantics. According to the Military Credentialing Advancement Initiative Report, “the language used to describe a servicemember’s knowledge and capabilities is foreign to most civilian industries and academic institutions. Because occupations are classified differently across the military services, translation of military training and experience can be difficult.” (p. 28) The report identifies this “translation problem” as one of the key areas to address in solving veteran underemployment.
A key talent pool
Stereotypes may also play a role in veteran underemployment. That veterans are above all a “struggling population” is a stereotype that may have been reinforced by the very initiatives that were seeking to reduce veteran unemployment. This stereotype can make certain employers reluctant to hire veterans. In fact, hiring incentives may have given employers the wrong idea that employing veterans is essentially doing them a favor, rather than something that benefits the organization too.
In fact, hiring incentives may have given employers the wrong idea that employing veterans is essentially doing them a favor, rather than something that benefits the organization too.
The LinkedIn Veteran Opportunity Report found that veterans are a key talent pool in the United States. The same report found that once they are able to get past initial hurdles, veterans thrive in private-sector roles, and are 39% more likely than nonveterans to move into leadership positions. This data challenges another false stereotype — that veterans have a high turnover rate in corporate roles. In fact, veterans remain with the companies that first employ them 8.3% longer than nonveterans. The high turnover stereotype likely originated with misapprehension of a study that reported 50% of veterans who do leave their first corporate role do so within the first year of employment. (The study is often incorrectly cited as stating that 50% of all veterans in the civil sector leave their first role within the first year of employment.)
In many cases, employers and veterans both may be unaware of the way military credentials translate to civilian spheres. As mentioned, the MCAI report found that the translation of military credentials into a language understood by private-sector employers may be key for veterans finding meaningful employment. It can also help veterans map their education and career paths post-service. Below is a list the resources and tools most useful for veterans mapping their post-military career paths.
The Joint Services Transcript
The Joint Services Transcript (JST) is available free-of-charge in electronic form and is accepted by more than 2,300 colleges. Using American Council on Education (ACE)-validated academic credit recommendations (the ACE Military Guide), it lists all of the following:
- service members’ personal data
- course completions of all military ACE-evaluated courses
- ACE-evaluated credit recommendations of military occupations
- college-level test scores (CLEP, DSST, NCPACE, ACT/PEP, and Excelsior)
- other learning experiences
Although colleges are not under formal obligation to accept military credits, and ACE only makes credit recommendations, the JST has made it much easier for colleges to evaluate and translate military learning. In 2020, the Ace Military Guide was modernized for better navigation and mapping of learning outcomes, making it even easier for colleges to use.
Articulation tools and portals
The use of articulation tools and portals can make the process of getting credits for experience simpler, and may even encourage more colleges to accept military credits. These tools can also help streamline the process of transition into private-sector roles for veterans and their employers. The following were identified as some of the most useful and up-to-date portals and tools veterans can use to translate their credentials.
- Credentialing Opportunities On-Line (COOL)
Developed by the Department of Defense, COOL maps military occupations, training, and experience to relevant civilian credentials, as well as private and federal civilian occupations. The Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, and Navy each have a separate COOL website open to the public which include easy-to-navigate search tools.
- My Next Move for Veterans
Based on data from the Occupational Information Network (O*NET), My Next Move for Veterans allows users to search through a database of more than 900 careers to find jobs most similar to what they did in the military. Users can view tasks, skills, salary information, job listings, and more, free of charge.
- MilGears Platform
MilGears is an articulation tool, like COOL, and uses COOL’s data on military occupations, civilian occupations, federal occupations, and civilian credentials. However, it also considers veterans’ unique learning through experience and training, including informal learning. Users can upload formal documentation and obtained qualifications as well as list military training and experience. There is also an “Engage My Career” tool that creates customized career path recommendations based on veterans’ unique career history and qualifications, including suggestions on how to fill training gaps.
- Handshake 2 Hire (H2H) at Lockheed Martin
The aerospace company Lockheed Martin offers a unique military skills translation tool that assists military personnel and veterans in finding suitable employment opportunities with the organization. Users can enter a military code or title to view available jobs, and the search can be narrowed to a specific geographic region.
CHOW – veterans doing it for themselves
In early 2020, active duty navy officer and Anne Arundel Community College culinary arts student, Jordan Foley started a nonprofit, Chow, to help military veterans and spouses start careers in the culinary arts. The impetus to this nonprofit training program was the suicide of 2 of Jordan’s Naval Academy classmates. Both individuals had been struggling to launch their own businesses. Jordan believed it was time to start his own nonprofit assisting veteran small business owners and their spouses.
Today, Chow Corp is a 501(c)3 nonprofit incorporated in Maryland with a significant national imprint. Chow bridges the gap between a veteran leaving the service and entering the culinary industry through their Food Truck Training Program (FTTP). FTTP trainees learn about creating menus, branding, supply chain, food safety—and receive Chow’s logistic support. The goal is once the veteran or spouse has learned enough about the food truck industry, they can pursue their own business venture, perhaps opening a truck or restaurant of their own.
Four out of every 10 post-9/11 veterans suffer from some form of post-traumatic stress, and nearly 2 out of 3 veterans have trouble finding a lasting job with their first civilian employer. Surveys cite problems like low job satisfaction and limited advancement opportunities for veterans leaving their first job. Not only is securing post-military employment challenging, but becoming a business owner in the restaurant industry is near impossible. Chow is here to fix that by reducing barriers to entry and setting people up for success.
“Chow food trucks are run by veterans and military spouses training to become entrepreneurs in the culinary industry. These food trucks will also visit under-served regions and deliver meals to those in need. In addition to our food truck operations, we will provide services back to the veteran community through cooking therapy, cookware donations, culinary education, and pathways to food truck ownership. Veterans and military spouses can do amazing things when given the opportunity. It is only a matter of time before a Chow alum is a James Beard Award winner.”
College as a stepping stone
If the translation of military credentials is a key component in addressing veteran underemployment, education is surely the other side to this. Although statistics point to veterans enrolling in bachelor degree programs more frequently than in associate degree programs, community colleges may actually be a better choice for veterans overall. Community colleges tend to offer a more diverse range of programs covered by veteran education benefits. They also tend to attract a more diverse student body in terms of age and life experience, as well as generally offering more practical programs that can lead to faster employment after graduation. College in general can be a great stepping stone for those transitioning out of the military. It can be a place to further develop skills gained in the military, or a place to discover an entirely new career path that can lead to satisfying civilian employment.
Paying for college as a veteran
There are numerous education funding opportunities available to veterans, as well as their dependents and spouses. The best-known of these is the GI Bill. The original GI Bill was the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, which offered a variety of financial benefits to returning World War II veterans. These days, the Post-9/11 GI Bill has taken its place, along with a host of other sources of funding.
Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)
The FAFSA is a standard form completed by any U.S. citizen seeking financial aid to pay for education. Even as a veteran, it’s a good place to start. Through the FAFSA, you can access federal grants, loans, and work-study programs. An individual who has served in active duty (including basic training) for at least 1 day and was released for any reason other than dishonorable discharge is considered a veteran in FAFSA terms. Some, but not all forms of financial assistance offered through FAFSA are need-based. FAFSA benefits can be combined with GI Bill benefits.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill
The Post-9/11 GI Bill, administered by the Department of Veteran Affairs, can cover up to 36 months of college tuition and fees, as well as offering a housing allowance and funds for textbooks. The percentage (50-100%) of financial assistance given will vary depending on the chosen school, number of classes, and amount of relevant active duty.
At least one of the following criteria must be met to be eligible for GI Bill benefits:
- you have served for at least 90 total days of active duty since September 11, 2001
- you have served for at least 30 continuous days of active duty since September 11, 2001, and were honorably discharged for medical reasons related to your military service
- you received a Purple Heart (on or after September 11, 2001) and were honorably discharged (after any length of service)
- you are a dependent of a veteran or service member and are using GI Bill benefits through them
State Veteran Education Benefits
Educational assistance for student-veterans and their spouses and dependent is available in most states. Some of these can be combined with GI Bill benefits, while others can be used once GI Bill benefits have been exhausted. Some states offer free college tuition waivers for veterans who no longer have GI Bill benefits available or who wish to complete advanced degrees (which are not covered by the GI Bill).
Yellow Ribbon Program
The Yellow Ribbon Program is available for veterans wishing to attend graduate school, a private school with tuition fees that can’t be fully covered through the GI Bill, an out-of-state public school, or an international school. To be eligible for the Yellow Ribbon Program, veterans must qualify for GI Bill benefits at the 100% level. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs offers an online tool for identifying if a particular school participates in the Yellow Ribbon Program. The school makes the final decision in terms of accepting students to the program, and enrollment is on a first-come first-served basis.
Various foundations and organizations offer scholarships for veterans. These often have eligibility criteria which can be either need-based or depend on special conditions such as being a Purple Heart recipient or having a service-related disability or injury. Many colleges also offer scholarships, some general, and others tailored to veterans. Even those that quality for GI Bill benefits may be able to receive scholarship funds and use them for expenses other than tuition.
Military spouse education benefits
Spouses of servicemembers can access several benefits to partially or fully fund their education. The MyCAA (My Career Advancement Account) scholarship can provide up to $4,000 towards tuition costs of adult education programs. The primary scholarship is employment-targeted, so professional education programs leading to licensure, certification, or an associate’s degree are prioritized. Other options for military spouses include scholarships and grants, as well as tuition discounts offered at some military-friendly colleges.
Survivors’ and Dependents’ Educational Assistance (DEA)
DEA offers education benefits to veterans permanently disabled by a service-related injury, or to the spouses and children of servicemembers who died as a result of active duty. The benefit is paid directly to the student, and currently amounts to $1,265 per month for full-time students.
The Fry Scholarship is available for the children and spouses of servicemembers who died from a service-related disability or injury on or after September 11, 2001. The scholarship can be used to cover full in-state tuition costs at public schools and just over $25,000 per year for tuition at private or foreign schools. The scholarship also offers up to $1000 per year for books and a monthly housing stipend.
Easing the transition
One of the first steps for most veterans transitioning out of the military is their service branch transition assistance program. But when it comes to finding meaningful employment, there are many broader initiatives aimed at making the transition into civilian life easier. Below are some of the most successful examples of such initiatives.
TMAP assists active service members and veterans with the transition into civilian employment. They currently offer two industry-recognized training-to-placement programs with their clients ABF Freight in the freight trucking industry and FirstGroup in the passenger transport industry.
UMAP is focused on the Chicago area and offers veterans six months of training as gas utility workers. Those who complete the program are then offered a full-time position with Peoples Gas, a gas utility subsidiary servicing Chicago. Graduates of the program also receive 52 college credits applicable toward an associate degree.
This program is part of a DoD and military services initiative aimed at creating formal training pathways that lead veterans to viable careers. It is aimed at veterans in their first 180 days of transition out of the military. Currently, 550 private and public organizations are participating in this program through offering industry training, apprenticeships, and internships. Each program must offer reasonable expectation of employment upon completion. The Skillbridge website offers an interactive U.S. map that can be used to search for and apply to opportunities.
Each year, some 200,000 military members separate from the service. The Veteran Job Retention Survey found that 9 out of 10 veterans identified the opportunity to use their skills and abilities as the most important aspect of post-service employment. Although initiatives aimed at veteran unemployment since 2011 have been very successful, clearly, employment is not enough. Returning servicemembers, naturally, seek to enter private-sector roles they feel match their formal and informal training and experience. Several initiatives have arisen in response to high veteran underemployment numbers, many of which focus on the recognition and translation of military credentials into civilian credentials and opportunities. This effort is key, as programs that lead to recognized and transferrable credential are more likely to result in meaningful employment.