Unemployment rates on the rise among returning vets

By: Erica Christoffer

Jose Vasquez used to live under Lower Wacker Drive in downtown Chicago, sleeping on makeshift beds of cardboard and secondhand blankets during the bitter winter months.

Part of the reason the Vietnam veteran ended up on the streets was he couldn’t find work. Day labor jobs kept passing him up for younger, stronger workers, leaving him without a roof over his head from 1999 to 2003.

“I didn’t make enough money,” said Vasquez, who is now an office worker at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

“It’s still a problem, even with younger veterans,” said Vasquez. “People who are coming back from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, some of them are going directly to the shelters.”

Since the Persian Gulf War in 1990, 4.4 million men and women veterans have entered the U.S. job market.

The U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) is in the process of releasing a series of studies analyzing the current employment status of recently returned servicemen and women.

The first study was released in September 2007 found that 18 percent of veterans are unemployed. Of the recent veterans who are employed, 25 percent earn less than $21,840 a year.

Spokeswoman Laurie Tranter said the VA is currently working with the U.S. Department of Labor and the Department of Defense to review report findings and determine whether further research or program enhancements are needed.

A follow-up study, which has not been made public by the VA, was obtained by the Wall Street Journal. On March 25 the paper reported that veterans not in the labor force rose from 10 percent in 2000 to 23 percent in 2005, because they couldn’t find jobs, stopped looking for work, or went back to school.

The Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs responded to the VA study and Wall Street Journal article in a March 26 press release outlining efforts the state is taking to help veterans find employment. It said that in 2007, more than 13,000 veterans of the 1 million in Illinois obtained both public and private jobs after receiving services from the Illinois Department of Employment Security.

Yet as some find employment, the University of Chicago estimates there are still 18,000 homeless veterans in the Chicago area.

Kristy Tally, office manager for Veterans’ Leadership Program of Illinois Springfield location, said the state could do better in the realm of funding.

The group, which helps several hundred veterans transition from military service to civilian careers each year, has experienced reductions in state grants and has streamlined operating costs.

Tally said that those veterans are faced with the challenge of reintegrating into society, while having to prove at the same time that their military skills transition to the workplace.

When a veteran and a civilian worker apply for a job, Tally said, their resumes look different to the employer. A non-military worker has been collecting years of job experience, while a veteran may have been serving multiple tours in Iraq or Afghanistan. The work experience received on duty is equally valid, Tally said, but employers aren’t always sure how those skills translate.

“It makes it appear that the military veteran doesn’t have the same types of skills as a civilian, but they do,” Tally said.

Those who do land jobs are also faced with the realities of today’s economy, Tally said, including lower pay and less frequent pay increases.

Another reason for the increase in unemployment among veterans could be attributed to post traumatic stress disorder and problems associated with reintegration, Tally said.

“Some of the veterans who are returning now are having a difficult experience because they have been in the military during a wartime situation,” she said. “It might not allow them to hold a job.”

VA spokesman Matt Smith said the most recent employment report will be made public once an internal review process is complete.

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