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Unemployment among post-9/11 veterans still running heavy

The unemployment rate among younger veterans continues to outpace the share of out-of-work civilians with nearly one in 10 ex-service members from the Iraq and Afghanistan eras hunting for jobs, according to figures released Friday by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Younger male veterans are dragging a collective unemployment rate of 9 percent, compared to 7.6 percent in February 2012. Younger female veterans, who have faced far stiffer challenges grabbing civilian paychecks, posted an unemployment rate of 11.6 percent last month versus 7.4 percent at this time last year, the BLS said. 

In raw numbers, 203,000 post-9/11 veterans were unemployed in February. One year ago that number totaled 154,000. Their overall unemployment rate was 9.4 percent in February. The U.S. unemployment rate last month was 7.7 percent, the Labor Department reports.

“The problem of veteran unemployment should be seen as a national disgrace,” said Cleve Geer, national commander of AMVETS, a nonprofit veterans' organization.

Many of those men and women possess — literally — battle-hardened skills, if not the ability to work under fire, yet some employers seem unable or unwilling to transfer those strengths into civilian jobs, veterans groups say.

“It’s hard for me to believe that a guy can drive a truck in combat but he can’t drive one on the highways. I mean, what the hell is that all about?” said John E. Hamilton, commander in chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “You’ve got a (medical) corpsman out there in field with Marines doing everything short of open-heart surgery but he can’t be an EMT when he gets home. Are you kidding me?”

Yet the veteran-jobless rate soon may spike as sequestration forces federal agencies to hack budgets.

“That's definitely sending shockwaves around our community,” said Paul Rieckhoff, an Iraq War veteran and founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a nonprofit advocacy group representing more than 200,000 members.

“One third of our members work in government some place. A lot are at the TSA, the Pentagon, and Homeland Security, working as civilians,” Rieckhoff said. “We also have a lot working in the contracting space.”

'Everybody's worried'
Among the 20 U.S. companies that hire and retain the most veterans — as ranked by G.I. Jobs — seven of those businesses cater strongly or even entirely to military personnel or federal agencies, including Booz Allen, a management consulting firm that holds contracts with the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Transportation.

“Those (contracting) jobs for veterans are definitely going to be cut back some,” said Bob Tanner, a federally employed systems analyst and former Marine corporal who served in Iraq. He was unemployed from August 2006 until February 2007 after leaving the military. “There’s still a huge gap (in veteran-versus-civilian employment). But I think that gap is going to continue to grow if there’s a lot of layoffs.”

Added Rieckhoff: “In our population, everybody’s worried.”

In late February, however, his organization partnered with Futures Inc. and Cisco to launch an online employment tool called Career Pathfinder, which Rieckhoff vows, “can be the fuel injection that gets us to deeper impacts.” The free site helps translate specialized military skills to civilian jobs. It provides thousands of active job listings from employers who want to hire veterans as well as resume-building help and a career-mapping tool.

For months, though, the employment landscape has become increasingly laced with online tools meant to connect veterans to jobs, including VetNet, rolled out last November by Google and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s “Hiring Our Heroes” program. Is this the innovation that finally breaks the stubborn logjam?

“We hope so. It’s definitely got tremendous potential," Rieckhoff said.

The blueprint, he added: “is taking what normally happens at a career job fair and using technology to do all that at greater scale. If you think about the overall numbers (of post-9/11 veterans), you’re talking about a couple hundred thousand people who are unemployed. So if we can get a couple thousand employed from this program, we can make a real dent.”