Reconnecting military veterans to the workplace after they have served their country has been one the most talked about labor market issues by state and federal policymakers in recent years.
After all, what could be more noble than helping veterans, many of whom have risked their lives during combat tours of Iraq and Afghanistan, find jobs when they return home?
“Michigan’s veterans earned and deserve the best possible support, and we need to make sure they can get it,” Gov. Rick Snyder said in January in establishing the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency.
The agency is designed as a one-stop shop for veterans to more quickly access health, education and other benefits they’ve earned to help them transition to civilian life.
But statistics show that Michigan veterans are doing a pretty good job themselves of finding work, despite the widespread perception that they are coming home from the battlefield with few employment prospects.
And while there has been a strong push by government officials from President Barack Obama on down for businesses to hire veterans, some businesses are pushing back against proposed rules requiring federal contractors to step up their hiring of returning service personnel.
“A lot of the younger veterans are having a hard time transferring their skills to civilian workplaces, but the older ones have plugged right in to the economy. And they’re employed in some pretty good careers,” said Jason Palmer, director of research at the state’s Bureau of Labor Market Information & Strategic Initiatives.
Last year, the veterans’ jobless rate was 7.9 percent compared to the state’s overall unemployment rate of 9.1 percent.
Michigan veterans also have become reemployed at a faster rate than the state’s general worker population since the end of the Great Recession.
The jobless rate for veterans fell from 15 percent in 2010 to 7.9 percent last year. Michigan’s overall unemployment rate fell from 13.4 percent to 9.1 percent in the same period.
Veterans nationwide are doing even better than those in Michigan. The U.S. unemployment rate for veterans last year was 7 percent, nearly a full percentage point lower than in Michigan.
Some say veterans are doing well enough in the labor market that proposed Obama administration rules requiring that veterans and disabled workers comprise 7 percent of a federal contractor’s work force are unnecessary.
Associated General Contractors said this month that complying with the new financial and administrative requirements for hiring veterans would cost employers $11,333 per office location, 25 times higher than a Department of Labor estimate.
AGC represents 30,000 building contractors in the United States, including 400 in Michigan.
“So far, all available federal data makes it clear that there is simply no need for these new regulations,” Stephen Sandherr, AGC’s chief executive officer, said earlier this month.
Although most Michigan veteran who are actively looking for work find it, more than half the state’s 634,000 veterans are not officially counted in the labor force.
“We found that only about 44 percent of our veterans are in the work force. That shocked us,” said Palmer, whose office is working on a study about veteran employment that is due to be released in September.
Overall, 60.4 percent of Michigan’s adult population was in the labor force in June.
Palmer said Michigan’s veteran population is older than the national average, so many are retired and not looking for work.
“It’s a very old group,” he said. “When you adjust for age, veterans are in the work force at a higher rate than non-veterans.”
Some 41,000 Michigan veterans work part time and about 10,000 of those are seeking full-time jobs, Palmer said.
Younger veterans between the ages of 18 and 24 face more difficult prospects because some are disabled by war injuries and others lack education and skills required by employers.
“The big struggle is in the lack of expertise by veterans in translating their skills, talent, background and abilities to the jobs they’re seeking,” said Christopher Fletcher, a Defense Department analyst in Washington, D.C.
Fletcher, who grew up in Charlotte, near Lansing, recently started The Phenix Foundation, which connects returning veterans to services that help them transition to civilian life.
One of the biggest roadblocks veterans face in finding jobs is the lack of workplace credentials for skills they learned in the military, including truck driving and medical assistance, Fletcher said.
“If you don’t have a certificate or license, it can be pretty hard to get a job,” he said.
But while government leaders stress the need to employ veterans, federal training dollars to help them qualify for jobs have been cut in recent years.
Michigan is receiving about $5.5 million in federal job training funds for veterans this year, down $609,000 from 2011. The Snyder administration allocated an additional $3 million this year to the new Veterans Affairs Agency.
Michigan has the nation’s 11th-highest veterans population, but ranks last in federal money spent per person on services provided through the U.S. Veterans Administration, according to the governor’s office.
State officials say additional resources will be required to help veterans find employment as about 10,000 of them return home annually for the next few years, starting in 2014.
“Although many are finding good jobs, this is not to say we don’t need to take really good care of our veterans,” Palmer said.
Rick Haglund has had a distinguished career covering Michigan business, economics and government at newspapers throughout the state. Most recently, at Booth Newspapers he wrote a statewide business column and was one of only three such columnists in Michigan. He also covered the auto industry and Michigan’s economy extensively.