Enlisting in the U.S. military is often seen as a path to the middle class for high school graduates who don’t plan to attend college. But for those who only serve for a few years, recent research suggests that path has challenges that make it difficult for young veterans to find and maintain a job, let alone a career pathway with family-sustaining wages.
There has been a significant rise in the number of young veterans returning home from overseas and leaving service. This, combined with the economic downturn, resulted in some of the lowest levels of employment among young veterans in 60 years.
In 2011, the unemployment rate among 18- to 24-year-old veterans reached an alarming 29 percent. Although these numbers have improved since 2011, young veterans continue to face job-market challenges and lag behind their nonveteran peers. In 2015, about 17 percent of young veterans were unemployed, compared to 12 percent for nonveterans in the same age group.
Research suggests this is happening for a range of reasons, many of which relate to young veterans’ transitions back into civilian communities and the labor market. Young veterans face unique challenges transitioning to a civilian career, in part because compared to their nonveterans peers, veterans are less likely to have work experience that civilian employers understand, and they are less likely to have a college degree or college credits. Employers may also undervalue the experience younger veterans do have, due to a widespread (and false) belief that many military skills are not transferable to civilian jobs.
Many young veterans struggle with marketing their military experience to civilian employers. From their time in the military, veterans tend to have more practical job and leadership skills than their peers, which in a civilian career can translate into improved work efficiency, as well as skill with delegating and working with a team. However, they are less likely to know what civilian employers are looking for, or how to explain how their military experience applies to a civilian career.
Federal agencies provide training and services to help young service members prepare for civilian job searches before they leave the military. The U.S. departments of Defense, Labor and Veterans Affairs, for example, began providing training in 1991 through the Transition Assistance Program (TAP), a set of mandatory classes and counseling services designed to help service members start a career after separation. In 2011, the Veterans Opportunity to Work Act redesigned TAP to better meet the needs of transitioning service members in the modern civilian job market, made the program mandatory for all separating service members and renamed the training component Transition GPS (Goals, Plans, Success).
Participants in the Transition GPS program participate in a three-day employment workshop, administered by the Department of Labor. During the workshop, they engage in mock interviews and learn how to prepare a resume and translate their military experience into marketable skills. They are encouraged to start planning as early as possible before their separation date, and they may choose to participate in additional voluntary training related to a specific career track: higher education, entrepreneurship or technical training.
Youth service professionals working with young veterans have several tools at their disposal to help young veterans find and apply for jobs. Young veterans can explore career options using the Military Occupational Classification (MOC) Crosswalk search, an online tool designed to match military skills and experience to civilian careers.
Free career help is also available to veterans after they leave the military. Young veterans should be encouraged to take advantage of intensive follow-up services at any local American Jobs Center. Each American Jobs Center employs representatives who specialize in helping veterans find job opportunities and translate their experience into marketable skills in the civilian workforce. These veterans’ representatives help with resume development, and can even introduce veterans to job opportunities before they are available to the general public. They also work to educate employers about the value of the skills and experience young veterans bring.
By providing support throughout the transition process, programs such as Transition GPS, support from American Jobs Centers and online tools such as the MOC Crosswalk play an essential role in helping young veterans navigate the civilian job market. Professionals who work with young veterans should encourage them to take advantage of these services. With this support, they are better able to navigate this challenging transition and get started on a promising career path.
Jeffrey Taylor, Ph.D., is a technical specialist at ICF International, where he works on projects related to workforce development, job training and employment for vulnerable populations. He previously worked as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Maryland, College Park, researching political institutions and representation.
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