The Bureau of Labor Statistics released unemployment data this morning that showed that 13.1% of new veterans were unemployed in December, spiking up from 11.1% in November. These numbers mean that approximately 248,000 Iraq- and Afghanistan-era veterans were looking for work last month. December’s numbers bring the average unemployment rate for 2011 to 12.1%, making 2011 the fourth year in a row that the average annual unemployment rate has grown for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, the national unemployment rate – at 8.5% in December – is at its lowest rate in three years. The new veteran unemployment rate is nearly 5 percentage points higher than the national average in December. While both the veteran and the national unemployment rate trended down this year, this growing gap between the veteran rates and the national average emphasized the fact that the employment challenges facing veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are far from over.
And, there is the potential for it to get worse. Yesterday, the President and Secretary Panetta unveiled a new defense strategy that could, according to Reuters , lead to eventually decreasing the size of the force by between 76,000 to 114,000 troops. President Obama emphasized in his speech explaining the new strategy, “The tide of war is receding but the question that this strategy answers is what kind of military will we need long after the wars of the last decade are over.” And, while the President commented “we will keep faith with our troops, military families, and veterans who have borne the burden of a decade of war,” the new plan leaves many questions about issues such as military pay, retirement benefits and healthcare costs for military families and retirees. IAVA will monitor this situation closely and stands ready to work with the White House, the Department of Defense and the VA to ensure our service members and veterans remain a national priority.
As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down and as the size of the force decreases according to this new strategy, more pressure will be put on the system of services and benefits for veterans and their families. More veterans will return to find civilian jobs and will be confronted by many of the challenges highlighted in today’s unemployment numbers. It is the job of both the civilian and veteran communities to join together to smooth the transition from combat to career and start to close the gap between the new veteran and national unemployment rates.
Throughout 2011, IAVA worked tirelessly to unite the public and private sectors to fight against veterans’ unemployment through our Combat to Career Program. We launched a national conversation on veteran unemployment, played a leading role in passing the Vow to Hire Heroes Act of 2011 and provided employment resources to thousands of veterans throughout the year. As IAVA looks forward to 2012 we will continue to fight for employment opportunities for those veterans returning home.
For a deeper look at veterans’ employment issues, read IAVA’s Issue Report Careers After Combat: Employment and Education Challenges for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans --and help us in the fight against veteran joblessness. Make a donation  to support IAVA's Combat to Career program in 2012.