In a country divided politically and socially at a scale not seen since the Vietnam War, threatened by transnational terrorism and unsettled by nuclear saber rattling, a reasonable observer might conclude U.S. veteran reintegration is a nonissue. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Today’s veterans face challenges that pose an existential risk to our All-Volunteer Force and, by extension, to national security. These challenges are best observed by comparing veteran cohorts from the mid-20th Century and the Post-9/11 era. Ever since 16 million Americans hung up their uniforms in the late 1940s, veteran reintegration has been shaped by demographic and economic changes that have trended from beneficial to prejudicial.

Changing culture

“…we now have a military sub-culture that is disconnected from the society it protects in ways that often lead to cultural barriers for veterans during employer recruitment, hiring and retention processes.”

Demographically, veterans represent a declining portion of the labor force and the cultural elites, who make labor policies and hiring decisions. One out of every ten Americans wore a military uniform during World War II, creating a massive demographic wave that swept veterans into 25 percent of jobs, 75 percent of Congressional seats and 59 percent of the corner offices at large, publicly-traded companies by the late 1970s. By contrast, veterans make up only 6 percent of publicly-traded company CEOs and about 19 percent of Congress in today’s labor force. The end result is that we now have a military sub-culture that is disconnected from the society it protects in ways that often lead to cultural barriers for veterans during employer recruitment, hiring and retention processes. 

Shifting job market

Economically, America’s labor force has changed to reflect the needs of a knowledge economy. In 1947, only 5 percent of the population over 25 possessed a college degree and blue-collar jobs — with relatively low barriers to entry for returning veterans — comprised 47 percent of the labor market. Seventy years later, the labor force has rebalanced to only 23 percent blue-collar jobs, while 33 percent of jobs now require a college degree. During those seven decades, military educational attainment outside the officer corps has remained low, with 94 percent of today’s enlisted members lacking a college education. Unfortunately, that means smart, capable military members often fail to meet hiring criteria for middle-class jobs.

Poor preparation

Compounding the national challenges is the military’s failure to meaningfully update its World War II-era talent management system, which churns out a quarter million veterans each year but fails to prepare them to navigate private sector recruitment, hiring and promotion processes. While no longer the crisis posed in 2010 — when the military paid out a billion dollars in unemployment compensation to recent veterans — failed or delayed veteran reintegration into society poses challenges to the quality, expense and sustainability of the All-Volunteer Force. In addition to that, post-service outcomes profoundly shape potential recruits’ perceived desirability of military service. Without sufficient volunteers to fill its ranks, the military would be forced to downsize or reinstate the draft.

To the degree our nation considers an All-Volunteer Force preferable to compulsory service, we should all support the programs — like Hire Heroes USA — that ensure veterans achieve favorable, post-military outcomes.