Ian Horn / for NBC News
New York National Guard Spc. Kyle Chen, center, meets potential employer Amrit Singh during the Hiring Our Heroes military job fair held in March in New York City.
Younger veterans who served during the recent wartime era posted a 7.3 percent unemployment rate in May — down from the 12.7 percent rate recorded during the same month in 2012 — better news for a group that has struggled to find work since coming home, the U.S. Department of Labor reported Friday.
"This is an extremely positive step," said Tom Tarantino, chief policy officer for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), which has more than 200,000 members. "It's the result of a lot of hard work by a lot of people both in and out of the government. But this isn't the time to take our eye off the ball."
The promising May figures follow a federal report that showed the April jobless rate among post-9/11 veterans stood at a 7.5 percent — down from the 9.2 percent rate that group posted in April 2012.
And far more telling: two straight months of welcome workforce news for younger veterans come on the heels of a comprehensive annual assessment by the Labor Department, released in March, that showed a steady downward dip in the unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans between 2011 (12.1 percent) and 2012 (9.9 percent).
When viewed in sum, experts say, the chronically icy job market for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan finally may be showing signs of a thaw. Overall, the pace of younger veterans on the job trail remained only slightly higher than the 7.0 percent unemployment rate in May for non-veterans, according to the latest labor figures.
"The good news is corporate America is improving its effort to educate itself. Businesses are training their hiring managers how to read a military resume. They're consulting veterans who are already on staff about hiring new veterans," Tarantino said.
"This just reinforces that with a little bit of concerted effort by the public sector and private sector, we can fix the immediate problem," he added. "But it's going to take a much larger effort to solve all the structural problems that caused this in the first place: We still have to shore up how to translate military skills (into civilian jobs), and we still have to make sure that we're training veterans to enter the workforce properly."
Ian Horn / for NBC News
Ruty Rutenberg, a former U.S. Army medic, has two part-time jobs to pay the bills as he searches for his "mainstay career."
A warmer reception among U.S. hiring managers coincides with a bevy of aggressive, veteran-employment initiatives launched during recent years within the private sector, the nonprofit world, and at the federal level. That includes first lady Michelle Obama's "Joining Forces" campaign, which has helped escort nearly 300,000 ex-military members from careers in uniform to civilian jobs, the White House reported April 30.
"This is good. It's a positive trend," said Kevin M. Schmiegel, founder and executive director of the Hiring Our Heroes program at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. Through hundreds of jobs fairs, that push has helped more than 18,400 veterans and military spouses find work. Schmiegel also lauds both Joining Forces and the JPMorgan Chase "100,000 Jobs Mission" for helping reduce the number of unemployed veterans.
"We have had a positive effect over the last couple of years. People should emphasize that," added Schmiegel, who served 20 years in the Marine Corps, reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel.
But winning the job war at home remains far from a rout for tens of thousands of veterans, especially for many who served in combat zones — like Ruty Rutenberg, an Army medic in Iraq. He's been searching for his "mainstay" career for about a year.
Presently, Rutenberg fills his workweeks through a pair of part-time jobs: one hosting media events, the other doing outreach through a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs program called "Make the Connection", which encourages veterans who need mental-health care to come forward and get it.
"I've got multiple outlets of part-time work that's helping me pay the bills but still nothing permanent," Rutenberg said.
"I do know a lot of veterans I've talked to are having a hard time getting work, especially if there's any type of medical situation attached," he added. "Even if it's a small injury. Or, let's say it's (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) but it's a manageable amount: Employers are still afraid to take the initiative to hire those people. PTSD is very manageable if the veteran is actively getting counseling, taking meds, or if it's just not that high an amount (of anxiety symptoms)."
Among veterans who served during the post-9/11 era and who have a service-connected disability, the unemployment during 2012 was 8.0 percent, the Labor Department reported in March.
But the veteran group scuffling hardest to land steady paychecks: men and women between the ages of 18 and 24 who, during 2012, posted an unemployment rate of 20.4 percent, according to federal figures.
And their ranks are about to swell exponentially, particularly as American troops exit Afghanistan by 2014.
"The fact is there are another million service members and their families who are getting ready to leave the armed forces over the next five years," Schmiegel said. "Many of them are going to be 24 and under, and many of them will have military spouses who also face high unemployment.
"So even though we see positive trends year to year, we need to remain vigilant," he added. "We really need to push the programs that are working."
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This story was originally published on Thu Jun 6, 2013 12:01 PM EDT