Despite efforts to help today’s generation of returning veterans get jobs, veterans continue to experience high unemployment rates. In fact, a staggering 29 percent of male veterans between 18 and 24 are unemployed. Americans know veterans need jobs and they care about giving back to those who served. The Department of Veterans Affairs is getting the word out to employers about the advantages of hiring veterans. Job training programs and outreach initiatives offer opportunities to match skilled vets with employers. Yet, of today’s returning veterans, 69 percent say their greatest challenge in transitioning to civilian life is finding a job.
Employers are hesitant to hire veterans for reasons both real and perceived. Yes, many of today’s veterans have done multiple combat tours and carry trauma with them beyond the battlefield. But veterans are by no means the only population dealing with mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder. The truth?
– 26 percent of veterans have been diagnosed with PTSD or other mental health conditions, according to the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences.
– 26 percent of Americans have a diagnosable mental health condition, including anxiety, mood disorder, impulse control or substance abuse disorder, according to the National Comorbidity Survey.
The National Institute of Mental Health estimated in 2008 that 5 to 7 percent of Americans are mentally ill, but these figures fail to account for people who don’t seek treatment or to factor in conditions outside of permanent mental illnesses. In the case of veterans, the 26 percent includes those diagnosed with conditions such as “adjustment disorder,” from which returning vets typically recover.
So what does this mean? It means dealing with mental health and disability issues is a part of doing business – with or without veterans on staff.
These simple facts are powerful, but largely unknown. With all of the sensationalized news about service members with PTSD going on rampages and reports of a spike in suicide and mental illness, it is no surprise that so few employers have given a young veteran’s resume a second look. In fact, a recent study by Prudential and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America found that more than half of employers may not hire veterans because of negative stereotypes around PTSD.
We need to educate communities and employers about hiring veterans before the nation turns its attention elsewhere when the war ends. Corporate leaders such as Walmart and Prudential Financial have not only stepped up to fund workforce development for veterans but have also taken steps to educate themselves and others about the value and the challenges of hiring veterans. Many veterans do live with PTSD, but corporate practices allow for reasonable accommodations for all types of disabilities.
There also are resources in the community to help veterans succeed on the job. Employers might connect with veterans groups, such as my organization, Swords to Plowshares, which operates veteran employment and job-training programs, employs veterans and works closely with employers who truly want to welcome our nation’s heroes to their workforce.
Veterans are people who served their country, not yet another victim class looking for a handout. We all understand that a job gives us a sense of identity, purpose, community and financial security. Who among us wouldn’t be anxious and depressed if we didn’t have a job? The same is true for our veterans who bring leadership and value to the workforce. The bottom line is that hiring veterans is good for business – employers just need to understand why.
“Before my deployment to Iraq, I felt like your average proud Marine, but when I got back I was a different person. I ignored what was really going on with me and instead turned to drugs and alcohol. Once I faced the truth, I decided to get help. I feel great knowing that I finally found something I am good at – being a hardworking tradesman. I feel confident now – especially since Alan (Nudo) and I start our new jobs next week.”
- Marco Concepcion, Marine Corps Reserves, Iraq veteran
“Between my first and second deployment, I didn’t know what to do. I drank heavily to cope, and for months was not motivated to even look for work. I eventually enrolled in a for-profit school and quickly started racking up serious student loan debt. My best friend, Marco (Concepcion) signed me up for Swords to Plowshares’ training course to become an apprentice carpenter. At first I was skeptical, but now I feel lucky that my new job will give me stability, great income and the training I need for the future.”
- Alan Nudo, Marine Corps Reserves, Iraq veteran
Michael Blecker, Executive Director
Michael Blecker has been associated with Swords to Plowshares since 1976, only two years after its founding in 1974 by a group of Vietnam veterans and VISTA volunteers at the Veterans Administration in San Francisco. He is a co-founder of the California Association of Veterans Service Agencies, the National Association for Homeless Veterans, and a founder of the Coalition for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans.
Mr. Blecker served in the U.S. Army combat infantry in Vietnam from 1967 to 1970. He holds a J.D. degree from New College of California School of Law (1980) and a B.A. degree with honors from UC Berkeley (1974).
Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle, November 9, 2012