Navy veteran Nicholas Walker, 28, earned a degree from Indiana University in August 2011 but has had little luck finding a job. Despite putting in over 300 applications, the only job he's been able to find is at Burger King. (D. Kevin Elliott)
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Like many veterans, former sailor Nick Walker has struggled to find direction since leaving the military in 2008.
Initially, the former yeoman second class returned to his home state of Indiana — 30th among the states in unemployment — and started school. Using the GI Bill, he spent several years as a full-time student, studying psychology.
After graduating in 2011, he looked for a job — any job. He applied to restaurants, retail stores, a medical supply company and a pawn shop.
Earlier this year, after months of leaning on his parents to help with his cellphone bill, he finally took the only job offer he got: The 28-year-old college graduate and military veteran now works at a Burger King.
"I'm finally getting 40 hours a week, and they're looking to make me manager soon," he said in a recent interview.
Walker's experience echoes that of thousands of veterans across the country in recent years: separation from the military followed by a mixture of government benefits and school — often in a field with limited real-world potential — a bout with unemployment and, finally, a job that may fall far short of hopes and expectations.
Last year, the unemployment rate for the youngest veterans hit a startling high of more than 15 percent — roughly one in seven — and it has remained persistently higher than civilian rates of unemployment.
Statistics sometimes suggest the situation is improving; this summer, the jobless rate for those young veterans, bureaucratically known as Gulf War II veterans, dropped to 8.9 percent, higher than the overall civilian unemployment rate of 8.3 percent but close enough to be what experts call "statistically insignificant."
Yet by October, the gap had widened once more. Gulf War II veterans reported a jobless rate of about 10 percent, far higher than the nation's overall rate, which had dropped to 7.9 percent.
Some experts say the monthly rates can fluctuate significantly because the veterans' sample size is quite small. But monthly ups and downs aside, the data over the past few years indicate that veterans have struggled to find their place in a sluggish civilian economy.
That's become a problem for the White House, the Pentagon and lawmakers in both parties, who face sweeping criticism that a nation sending troops into combat overseas too often fails to help them find gainful employment when they return home.
"The services have realized it's in their long-term interests to take care of people and prepare them for getting out," said Patrick Bellon, the executive director of Veterans for Common Sense. "They really can't afford to have the public perceive the military as a dead-end option. That could be a real threat to the all-volunteer force."
Such concerns have prompted a governmentwide effort to boost veterans' employment. But the impact that government can have on this issue remains unclear.
The student track
Many out-of-work veterans bear scant resemblance to traditional unemployed civilians. For one thing, roughly one-third of "jobless" vets are in school, government data show.
Most likely, they are tapping GI Bill benefits and collecting a living stipend from the Veterans Affairs Department.
"People are coming out of the military and making a decision about whether they want to go into the labor market or go back to school, and a lot are choosing to do both," said Jim Borbely, an economist who studies veterans' employment trends at the Labor Department. "They go to school on the GI Bill, and take advantage of all the benefits available to them by taking unemployment at the same time. They are not who we typically think of when we talk about the unemployed."
In fact, some veterans see their generous Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits as a way to expressly avoid — or at least put off — the imperative to find a job.
Ryan Dirksen, a 32-year-old former Marine who lives with his wife and son near Modesto, Calif., found a way to collect a super-sized housing stipend along with his tuition benefits while he studies business management.
Instead of enrolling at his local community college, he climbed into his Toyota Camry twice a week for a four-hour round-trip commute across California's San Joaquin Valley and San Francisco Bay to attend the Community College of San Francisco.
Dirksen stayed on the roster at CCSF essentially for one reason: the Post-9/11 GI Bill housing stipend, which is pegged to the military's Basic Allowance for Housing rate for a married E-5 in the ZIP code for the location of the student veteran's school.
As a CCSF student, Dirksen's housing stipend was based on the BAH rate for the central San Francisco area, which is the highest in the nation at $2,742 per month — far more than the roughly $1,200 a month he would have received if his stipend had been based on the BAH rate for Modesto Junior College near his home.
"It makes a huge difference," Dirksen said. "I have a wife and child … to support."
He continued to take some classes at Modesto Junior College, but says, "It was in my best interest to make sure that I maintained at least one course on [the CCSF] campus there so I could receive the full [BAH] benefits."
After two years of that commuting routine, Dirksen transferred to George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
The GI Bill offers veterans like Dirksen a valuable — even lucrative — option that is not available to unemployed civilians.
"There are jobs out there, but a lot of the pay is very low," said Jarom Vahai, a former Marine who helps veterans in the San Francisco area through a group called Green Careers for Veterans. "If these jobs are not going to pay more than a veteran can get just by staying in school, then you're not going to see veterans show up for these jobs."
Government steps up
Despite the effects of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, there is little question that the veterans' unemployment problem is real.
Efforts to reduce joblessness among vets have garnered a level of bipartisan support that is rare in today's polarized political climate, with many new ideas, initiatives and programs popping up in recent years.
For example, the departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs, Labor and Education are in the midst of a broad overhaul of the Transition Assistance Program that supports troops separating from the military.
TAP was once a voluntary seminar lasting a few hours and offering rudimentary tips on such things as how to access post-service benefits. Many troops simply skipped it.
The new program involves two to three days of mandatory core counseling that covers real-world skills such as résumé writing, translating military acronyms for potential civilian employers, and suggested dress codes for job interviews. The program also offers specialized instruction for troops with specific plans to attend college or start a small business.
The new version of TAP is being tested at seven locations, with plans to expand the new courses forcewide in 2013.
The effort signals a cultural shift within the Pentagon. For years, many senior leaders quietly feared that preparing service members to succeed in the civilian job market might hurt military retention.
Now, however, helping troops get on the right track as they separate is viewed as a key mission. That's fueled in part by budget concerns as the Defense Department is on track to spend more than $1 billion on unemployment benefits for recently separated and out-of-work veterans, more than double the cost before the recession in 2008, according to DoD data.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers have passed a flurry of new laws aimed at making it easier for veterans to find work. For example, a law that took effect in August requires federal agencies to accept military experience to fulfill training requirements for federal licenses, potentially expediting jobs in such fields as aircraft maintenance and communications.
Another law passed in late 2011 gives employers a tax credit for hiring veterans and allows troops to apply for federal jobs even before they leave service. That ends the longtime practice of requiring troops to provide separation papers as part of the application process.
The White House also has targeted the private sector. In an effort led by first lady Michelle Obama, the administration's Joining Forces campaign has targeted thousands of private-sector companies and business groups and urged them to hire veterans. White House officials say more than 2,000 companies have signed up and hired more than 125,000 veterans.
The Joining Forces initiative may be one of the best models for addressing veterans' employment concerns, said John McKinny, a recently retired veterans employment specialist with the Labor Department in Texas.
"These guys are coming home to the worst economy since the Great Depression," McKinny said. "The most effective thing we can do is educate the employer community and say, ‘Look, these are great young men and women.' And once they get hired, employers will realize that. But changes like that may not manifest in a week or two … or even a year."