Even as the nation paused on Monday to commemorate Veterans' Day, U.S. defense analysts continued to lay the framework for the sharpest force reduction in forty years. Hundreds of thousands of America's professional warriors will soon be out a job, catapulted into one of the grimmest economies in national memory. As a decade of wars winds to a close, we should ask what comes next. If the country no longer needs many of its service members, but neither do civilian employers, where will they end up? On the horizon looms a new and serious jobs crisis for our recent veterans—if not confronted now, it will surely get worse.
Cuts to military personnel, once a topic of fierce debate, have now become a matter of course. The only questions now are how much—and how fast. As the Pentagon pivots to the Asia-Pacific, it is America's ground forces who find themselves most on the chopping block. In June, the Army sheared its active combat brigades from forty-five to thirty-three. It is prepared to cut at least one hundred thousand more active-duty personnel. Meanwhile, the Marine Corps plans—optimistically—to lose 20 percent of its active-duty force.
Thanks to the ongoing budgetary sequester and political morass of the U.S. Congress, however, much of this process remains clouded in uncertainty. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has signaled that the final cuts could go far deeper. Since the introduction of America's All-Volunteer Force in 1973, there has been only one other personnel reduction of such significant size. Coming at the end of the Cold War, this saw a phased elimination of 25 percent of the Armed Forces over five years. By comparison, today's downsizing is sharper, more lopsided, and more open-ended. Its pace pushes into uncharted territory—and sows deep uncertainty among those still in the service.
William Crunkleton, aged 23, was honorably discharged as a Corporal from the Marine Corps in February of this year. He recounts an environment in which, from 2011 onward, “Any infraction, no matter how small, became a one-way ticket out.” Force planners, long focused on encouraging service members to reenlist, have now shifted to raising the rate of attrition. Their efforts are paying off. Of Crunkleton’s close-knit peer group of five junior enlisted Marines, four have elected to hang up their uniforms for the civilian jobs market.
As these young men and women leave the active-duty military en masse, they enter a workforce still crippled by the Great Recession. Five years after the 2008 crash, unemployment remains at 7.8 percent. Record numbers of Americans have abandoned the job hunt altogether—the national labor-participation rate has hit its lowest point in 35 years. For reference, when the U.S. military undertook its last major reduction in the early 1990s, the only downward pressure on civilian hiring was a recession that lasted eight months. It is a difference between night and day.
Compounding this challenge are the unique obstacles that recent veterans already face in re-acclimating to civilian life. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly three in ten post-9/11 veterans reported a service-related disability. Meanwhile, a 2011 Pew poll found that 44 percent of recently discharged service members reported trouble integrating into the civilian workforce, roughly double that of veterans who served before 9/11. Employers, running razor-thin margins and anxious about lingering PTSD, may also be especially hesitant to hire veterans only recently separated from active duty.
Other bureaucratic challenges aggravate the situation further. Although the government offers a myriad of transition assistance programs, these initiatives remain uncoordinated and often underfunded. Service members, entering the military through many grueling months of training and indoctrination, may often leave it with only an abbreviated class on résumé writing. Despite repeated calls for reform, many advanced military licenses and certifications do not yet translate into their civilian equivalents. This leaves many otherwise competitive, qualified veterans hopelessly mismatched on paper.
The net result is a 10 percent unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans. Among the youngest veterans, aged 18-24, it is also the worst: over 20 percent of those who actively seek positions cannot find them. As defense cuts accelerate and the number of transitioning service members rapidly increases, these numbers will not get better.
Two traditional veterans' sanctuaries may also be losing their luster thanks to broader shifts in the U.S. economy. The federal workforce, long a reliable refuge thanks to veterans' hiring preferences, has declined rapidly since 2011. According to a study by the Center for Regional Analysis, a further twenty-two thousand federal civilian jobs will be lost over the next five years.
At the same time, the veterans' GI Bill—a guaranteed college education enjoyed by each successive generation of America's warriors since World War II—is not the same ladder to prosperity it once was. Although $11 billion dollars has been set aside for veterans' tuition assistance in the 2013-2014 fiscal year, the actual utility of that diploma has never been less. Indeed, roughly half of recent college graduates remain underemployed in positions that do not require postsecondary degrees. Once separated from the service, America’s veterans may well become casualties of the same economic trends that have beset the wider Millennial generation.
To be clear, America’s transitioning service members still enjoy tremendous national support. Many of the biggest stumbling blocks faced by veterans today—psychiatric evaluation, professional skills development, and the transferability of credentials—have been identified as issue areas by both the Pentagon and Obama Administration. Meanwhile, veteran-oriented jobs creation remains a priority across both the public and private sectors. The White House’s “Joining Forces” hiring initiative, launched in 2011, boasts the participation of more than two thousand companies. Walmart alone has pledged to hire an additional one hundred thousand veterans through 2017. While many of these created positions may offer landing pads, too few will offer careers.
Ultimately, properly addressing the issue of veterans' assistance can only come with a shift in national priorities. U.S. politicians and defense planners have fixated almost entirely on the likely character and conduct of the next big war. They have given much less thought to the fate of veterans of the last one. This is a shame. The energy and resources with which policymakers have attacked issues like cybersecurity and China, applied to veteran rehabilitation, would do a lot of good in a hurry.
Should this challenge remain unsolved, America's warriors will be the worse for it. As a rapidly shrinking military collides with a stagnant labor market, work will become harder to come by. In competition for the scant few jobs available, veterans may well find themselves at a growing disadvantage against civilians who have had more time to tailor their skills to the demands of the new economy. The nation will never abandon its service members entirely, as it once did to the generation who fought in Vietnam. But expect the sight of veterans on unemployment benefits and food stamps to become a lot more common.
Among certain circles, America’s military has traditionally been viewed as an unshakable fallback, a reliable road toward opportunity when all other doors have been shut. This may not be the case much longer.
Emerson Brooking is a Washington-based defense researcher.