Conflict arises on veteran hiring

Executives from more than 20 companies traded ideas on hiring more military veterans in this tough economy, and easing their transition into civilian careers, during a special “Veterans Employment Summit” last week hosted by the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

Before a single idea could be shared, however, executives watched uncomfortably for 10 minutes as their hosts exchanged insults. Rep. Bob Filner (Calif.), the ranking Democrat, started the rhubarb. Soon drawn in was an angry chairman, Republican Jeff Miller of Florida.

The scene reinforced the notion that the 112th Congress is the most divisive in recent memory. The type of bitter exchange that serves as entertainment on the 24-hour cable “news” circuit was allowed to open a pro-veteran event arranged by a committee once known for bipartisanship.

Filner challenged statistics Miller used in his opening statement, that the unemployment rate for the youngest veterans was nearly into double digits. He said unemployment for veterans “is almost twice that of the national average and for returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans it may be up to three times…far worse than some of the statistics I just heard.”

A check with the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows Miller used correct data. Filner used BLS data for the most recent month, August, and used the unemployment rates for veterans age 18 to 24, which fluctuates widely, month to month, given that the number of veterans surveyed is small.

Even administration officials have cautioned against such comparisons.

“You can’t say things are significantly worse for veterans” in the job market “but they certainly aren’t better. And that is what surprises people,” said BLS economist Jim Borbely in a phone interview. “They expect veterans to have an easier time because they have the training and the skills acquired through their service. But in this economy we are not really seeing that.”

The latest annual survey shows a jobless rate for veterans of all eras at 8.7 percent compared to 9.4 percent for non-veterans. Among “Gulf War-era II” veterans, those who left service since 9-11, unemployment is 11.5 percent. But Miller ignored the statistical challenge in answering Filner.

When company representative got their chance, they discussed why veterans present a rich pool of job candidates and described their own successes finding and hiring veterans. Some directed a few knocks at the Department of Defense and at military commanders for not allowing separating or retiring service members time enough while on active duty to research civilian job opportunities.

They also criticized blocked access from military computers to company websites to allow members to scan and apply for jobs. Some employers complained too that the military does little to help departing members translate their job skills and experience into job resumes that potential civilian employers can understand.

Jolene Jefferies, vice president for Direct Employers Association, warned that recent proposed regulations from the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, intended to help veterans by forcing companies doing business with the government to keep detailed records on interaction with veteran applicants, would be “a job-killer.”

“We think it’s going to be a tremendous burden for employers. It’s going to cost millions. It’s not the right approach to get employers to hire veterans because the record keeping is going to be just insane…I really urge you to take a look at that,” Jefferies told the committee.

When Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) asked what else Congress could do to help businesses to hire veterans, Kevin Schmiegel of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said just “be active on the issue in your communities. I think this is the most non-partisan issue we can possibly be dealing with.”

“You still hold that opinion after how we started this?” quipped Miller.