Last month I was meeting with a group of citizens in Berrien County, when a young man approached me with his parents and introduced himself. A Marine, he had just returned home from serving on active duty and was looking for work. He had enlisted shortly after graduating high school, and we talked about difficulties he encountered from employers who – though this young man had spent four years as an active-duty Marine – questioned whether he’d ever had a “real job.”
Service members make enormous sacrifices to ensure our freedom and security. It is incumbent upon all of us to ensure that when we welcome them home, we also offer job training and career placement assistance as a reflection of our thankfulness.
Yet as citizens across the country and in Michigan face a bleak job market, our veterans are struggling to find work at an even higher rate. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the unemployment rate among veterans who have left active duty since 2001 was just over 12 percent in October – more than 3 percentage points above the civilian unemployment rate.
On Monday, President Obama signs the VOW to Hire Heroes Act, a component of his overall jobs plan that Congress enacted last week with bipartisan support. The bill, among other things, provides tax credits, ranging from $5,600 to $9,600, to companies that hire unemployed veterans.
But the bill omits another group of service members who are facing a crippling unemployment rate. The Department of Defense estimates that military spouses are unemployed at a rate of 26 percent. In other words, one in every four individuals married to a service member are actively looking for work.
Robert Gordon, head of Military Community and Family Policy at the Pentagon, estimates that 80-to-85 percent of military spouses want to work, but many are restricted by the responsibilities that come with supporting their spouses’ moves and deployments. And those who are employed earn roughly 25 percent less than their civilian counterparts.
Who are these spouses? According to the Pentagon, 95 percent of 1.2 million spouses are women. Most – roughly 750,000 – are currently married to active duty service members, and more than half of those are under 31. While nearly all – 84 percent – have some level of college education, 25 percent have a bachelor’s degree and 10 percent have an advanced degree.
The Department of Defense launched the Military Spouse Employment Partnership (MSEP) earlier this year to combat the problem. The partnership includes more than 100 companies, and seeks to promote and encourage the companies to hire military spouses while connecting the spouses to a database of welcoming employers. Partnership officials estimate that, already, more than 5,000 military spouses have found jobs since the partnership began in June. A goal of the project is to achieve the employment of at least another 20,000 military spouses before the end of next year.
This collaboration is an example of how employers and government agencies can work together to create solutions that support the reintegration of our soldiers and their families into society upon their return from active duty.
In order to be effective, however, efforts like the VOW to Hire Heroes Act and the MSEP must be components of even larger program of support for our military families. Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggests that these and other outreach efforts must encompass what he calls the “Reintegration Trinity:” 1) access to health care for life; 2) education; and 3) employment.
The successful integration and application of each of these three components, according to Mullen, will ensure a seamless transition back into society and improved quality of life for veterans and their families.
Gratitude compels us to do more for our returning servicemen and women than a mere thank-you. Having sacrificed so much for us, it is not too much to expect that the nation would ensure these outstanding people have every opportunity to contribute and earn a living upon their return. To be sure, I’d say it’s the least that should be expected of us.