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With all of the ceremonies and commemorations of Veterans Day, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that veterans are not a homogeneous group of men and women who all have the same needs. Some veterans complete their service with a Master’s Degree (or two or three), many have highly marketable skills, others have contacts that make them valuable in defense-related industries, and others leave service with the resources and skills needed to create their own businesses.
Some veterans return with severe disabilities, including some that are life-altering. For the most part, the federal government has done a good job in helping disabled veterans find employment. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 1-in-3 veterans with a service-connected disability work in the public sector. The unemployment rate for veterans with a service-connected disability is actually slightly lower than that of other veterans.
One part of the veteran community does not do so well – younger veterans. The unemployment rate for veterans aged 18-24 is almost 8 percent. For male veterans in the same group the number is more than 8 percent. While those numbers are shockingly high, they are not very different from the numbers for non-veterans in the same age group. The truth is that young people, particularly those who are not college-educated, have high unemployment rates.
That is a problem. It means a large chunk of the labor force continually struggles to find work at a time when the rest of the economy is supposed to be humming along nicely. It also means those young people are not getting started on building a career. At a time in their lives when they should be building the foundation for the rest of their adult lives, too many are unemployed or under-employed.
I believe that problem is particularly bad when it comes to veterans. These young men and women join the military at a young age, typically soon after high school, serve the country, then are discharged. There are programs to help with transition back to civilian life, but there is still a large number who cannot find a good job.
Some people I have talked with about this say these folks have veteran preference, so that is enough. As I have said before, I do not think veteran preference as it is constructed today is helping. In fact, it is what complicates the hiring process. For young veterans without a college degree, we could do far more than what we are doing now.
Less focus on education, more on training
Part of the problem is that so many federal jobs are typically filled with college graduates. It is not that those jobs require a degree, or that the education that qualifies people gives them special skills that are required for the job. For example, many administrative jobs are filled with college graduates with majors like political science, history, psychology, English or similar fields of study. One can make a reasonable argument that the education process teaches critical thinking and other skills that transfer to the jobs, but the truth is that having a better understanding of the causes of World War I, or Freudian theories on personality, or any other liberal arts education does not provide the technical skills needed to do those administrative jobs. What we do is hire bright people and train them.
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If we rethink how we fill some of those jobs, we could provide far more opportunities for young veterans without college degrees. Here’s how. The typical entry level for a human resources specialist, or a management analyst, or many other administrative jobs, is GS-5 or GS-7. Sometimes the jobs are filled with students at lower grades. If we built formal training programs targeted to young veterans and created sub-entry level jobs, we could bring them into GS-3 or GS-4 positions, with the same promotion potential to GS-11 or GS-12 that traditional hires have.
Such a program should be specifically targeted to the veterans who need the help. That means a veteran with a Bachelor’s Degree would not be qualified. There is precedent for excluding fully qualified people from programs. For example, some upward mobility programs specifically exclude people who are qualified to be hired through traditional hiring programs.
If we took the time to think about veteran hiring in a more holistic way, we could offer some veterans who have traditionally struggled to find good jobs an opportunity to build a career in a stable job with good pay and benefits.
Some people will say hiring folks without degrees for these jobs would be a mistake. I disagree. Much like getting a college education provides transferable skills that are not directly related to the technical work of the jobs, military experience does as well. We want to hire people who are responsible. We want people who can think, and we want people who can be trusted with sensitive and important work. We also want to hire people who have demonstrated they can learn new skills. A 21 year-old former soldier, sailor, airman or marine or other veteran can certainly check those boxes. I think taking steps to find better ways to hire these young veterans is a risk worth taking, and one that is likely to produce some outstanding new hires.
Jeff Neal is a senior vice president for ICF and founder of the blog, ChiefHRO.com. Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.