WASHINGTON — The unemployment rate last year for young Iraq and Afghanistan veterans hit 21.1 percent, the Labor Department said Friday, reflecting a tough obstacle combat veterans face as they make the transition home from war.
The number was well above the 16.6 percent jobless rate for non-veterans of the same ages, 18 to 24.
As of last year, 1.9 million veterans had deployed for the wars since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Some have struggled with mental health problems, addictions, and homelessness as they return home. Difficulty finding work can make the adjustment that much harder.
The just-released rate for young veterans was significantly higher than the unemployment rate of young veterans in that age group of 14.1 percent in 2008.
Many of the unemployed are members of the Guard and Reserves who have deployed multiple times, said Joseph Sharpe, director of the economic division at the American Legion. Sharpe said some come home to find their jobs have been eliminated because the company has downsized. Other companies may not want to hire someone who could deploy again or will have medical appointments because of war-related health problems, he said.
"It's a horrible environment because if you're a reservist and you're being deployed two or three times in a five-year period, you know you're less competitive," Sharpe said. "Many companies that are already hurting are reluctant to hire you and time kind of moves on once you're deployed."
‘A real hard time’
One veteran looking for work is Dario DiBattista, 26, of Abingdon, Md., a graduate student who did two tours in Iraq in the Marine Reserves with a civil affairs unit. He said he's found that a lot of military skills don't readily transfer into the workplace, and in many cases, there aren't jobs to apply for even if companies want to hire veterans.
"If you don't have a strong family support system ... it's hard to get over the hump to make the decision of where you're going to live, what you do for work, where you're going to go to school, if you can even qualify to get into school," DiBattista said.
Justin Wilcox, a 30-year-old Iraq veteran who is participating in a work-study program at a vet center operated by the Veterans Affairs Department in Charleston, W.Va., said he hasn't just had problems finding jobs, but keeping them. He's done work as a coal miner, as a salesman selling drill bits and in other positions, but he said mental health problems stemming from the war with side effects such as anger and difficulty concentrating have made it difficult.
There's a lack of understanding about the needs some veterans have, said Wilcox, who is studying to become a teacher.
"Basically, it's been a real hard time for me. Because when I do get a job, it's not a real high paying job," Wilcox said. "I have a difficult time relating to people and ... one job that I had that paid really good, I couldn't comprehend what I was supposed to do and how I was supposed to do it."
Less training, experience
For veterans of all ages from the recent wars, the unemployment rate in 2009 was 10.2 percent. Historically, younger veterans have had more difficulty than their older counterparts finding a job because they often have less training and job experience. Some joined the military right out of high school.
Lisa Rosser, an Army veteran and company owner who sits on the advisory board of the Call of Duty Endowment that funds projects focused on veterans employment issues, said she encourages veterans to emphasize to prospective employers what they learned about managing people in a stressful combat environment.
"If they talk about their general leadership skills and their ability to supervise and to manage people, especially at a very young age, that is a good sell ... because the average 24-year-old and 27-year-old in the military has similar supervisory and managerial experience as someone in their 30s on the civilian side," Rosser said.
One possible solution is to make it easier for veterans to transfer certifications they have for jobs they did in the military into the civilian workforce, Sharpe said.
The Labor and Veterans Affairs departments have a variety of programs addressing the problem, including one that educates employers about how to work with veterans with special needs. The hope is that another program, the Post-9/11 GI Bill rolled out last year, will be particularly effective. Under it, $78 billion is expected to be paid out in education benefits over the next decade for veterans of the recent wars to attend school.
The national unemployment rate last year was 9.3 percent, the highest since 1983.
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