Iraq and Afghanistan Vets Saw High Unemployment in 2011

Drawdowns, defense cuts, and labor market weakness have all meant high unemployment for Iraq, Afghanistan vets.

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Today, the Labor Department reported that unemployment for Gulf War-era II veterans—those who have served on active duty since September 2001—was 12.1 percent in 2011, up slightly from 2010's 11.5 percent, and far higher than the nonveteran rate of 8.7 percent. Those job troubles may persist as more troops come home.

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"We have the drawdown from two different wars—one in Iraq, one in Afghanistan--and you also have the anticipated cuts in the defense budget, which will reduce the end-strength of most of the services." says General James L. Jones, former national security adviser and co-chairman of the Call of Duty Endowment, a nonprofit corporation that assists organizations that place veterans in jobs.

According to the Labor Department, there were roughly 2.5 million Gulf War-era II veterans as of February—8 percent more than one year ago and 21 percent more than two years ago.

Bobby Kotick, co-chairman of the Call of Duty Endowment and CEO of video game company Activision Blizzard, says that while vets coming off of active duty are often highly skilled, "they're just going to have to have their skills reoriented for 21st-century opportunities." He points to computer programming as one key area where vets could use the job retraining help, but he also says that simple job-hunting skills like buying a suit and making a resume are also crucial for many vets.

Of course, many Americans, veteran and nonveteran like, could use job training. The harsh truth is that, while many factors may account for recent veterans' high unemployment numbers, the job market is hard for a lot of people right now.

"Everything from creating a resume to highlighting the right skills to the process of finding the right job...all those things have historically been difficult [for veterans]," says Gautam Godhwani, CEO of job search engine "Now you have a situation where you have a much higher unemployment rate than a few years ago."

Veterans' job market challenges mirror those of the broader population in several key ways.

For example, young male nonveterans had a remarkably high 2011 unemployment rate, at 17.9 percent. Young male Gulf War-era II veterans also did, but it was much higher, at 29.1 percent, according to Labor Department data. A similar pattern holds true for some minorities—Hispanic nonveterans had a jobless rate of 11.2. For Hispanic Gulf War-era II vets, it was 17.0 percent. Likewise, black nonveterans had a high unemployment rate of 15.8 percent. For Gulf War-era II vets, it was also high—14.3 percent—though slightly lower than that of the nonveteran population.

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Still, recent figures show that there could be a glimmer of hope. In February, Gulf War-era II veterans unemployment was 7.6 percent, down nearly 5 percentage points from February 2011. Likewise, in January, that rate was at 9.1 percent, down from 15.2 percent in January 2011.

Year-over-year drops in the monthly vets' unemployment rate suggest that, though the figures are volatile and not seasonally adjusted, they could be showing meaningful decline, says Jim Borbely, an economist at the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"Once you start to see the months pile up" in terms of year-over-year declines, says Borbely, "you start to get a little more comfortable calling it a trend. So we might be seeing the beginning of a trend."

Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis today hailed initiatives backed by the Obama administration, like tax credits for businesses hiring unemployed vets, as key to boosting vets' employment. Then again, says Godhwani, helping vets find jobs may simply be a case of a rising tide lifting all boats, as an improving job market helps more job seekers get back onto payrolls.

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