The unemployment rate for military veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan has dipped recently after months of riding higher than the national average, but some analysts caution it's too early to tell if the progress is real or a blip.
The monthly snapshot provided by the federal government's February jobs report showed that the unemployment rate for veterans of the two wars had dropped significantly, to 7.6 percent. That followed a decline in January, and last month's number was also lower than the rate of 8.3 percent for the population as a whole, a significant shift because joblessness among veterans who served in the Gulf had run higher than the general rate in recent years.
"We tend to call a trend a trend and we are starting to see what seems like a trend, but we don't want to overstate it and say the problem is solved," said James Borbely, an economist at the Department of Labor.
Some analysts say there's good reason for the caution. Ted Daywalt, the chief executive officer of a jobs board called VetJobs, said he expected the unemployment rate in early 2012 to drop because fewer guardsmen and reservists were returning from the Gulf.
"They aren't flooding the market as much," Daywalt said. "It's a blip."
The federal government also undertakes a longer-term review of unemployment among veterans. That report came out Tuesday and presented a more sobering picture of the jobs scene for veterans. The report said the unemployment rate for those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan averaged 12.1 percent during 2011, versus 8.7 percent for the overall population and up from 11.5 percent for veterans the year before.
Kevin Schmiegel, who is leading the U.S. Chamber of Commerce efforts to find jobs for veterans, said the monthly drops cited for January and February seem so different from past results that he's skeptical that the jobs picture has improved that much. He's putting more stock in the latter report, even if the information is more dated.
"If you look at a whole year, you're going to get a more accurate picture than if you look at an individual month," Schmiegel said. "I think the data reflect that the picture hasn't gotten better."
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, said that a 30 percent unemployment rate in 2011 for the youngest veterans _ those ages 18 to 24 _ was particularly startling.
"Clearly, there's significant work ahead, she said. "I think getting our veterans jobs has to remain a top priority."
Congress has already taken some steps to try to help veterans find work. It passed a new tax credit worth up to $5,600 for employers that hired unemployed veterans. It doubled the tax credit for employers that hired disabled veterans out of work at least six months, moving it to $9,600. Federal agencies have also stepped up the hiring of veterans and partnered with the private sector in conducting job fairs.
Jordan Diminich, 28, a former operations specialist with the U.S. Navy, said he appreciates the focus on helping vets find work and likens it to fulfilling an obligation. He knows that he's the one responsible for whether he gets a job or not, but part of the sales pitch that military recruiters made to him was that his service would be a "game-changer" when it came time to get a job outside the military. That hasn't happened. Diminich graduated from New York City's Hunter College in January and has been looking for a job in advertising or marketing.
"The government and other organizations should help, but most of it falls on you," Diminich said. "I have to be a hard-charger and make the most out of my interviews."
Murray said she expects the Obama administration in the coming weeks to reveal more details about plans to create a new conservation program that would put veterans to work rebuilding trails, roads and levees on public lands. Obama also called for targeting federal grant money toward those local agencies who hire more veterans as police officers and firefighters. It's been about six weeks since he announced the proposal, but there has been little movement since then on Capitol Hill. At a recent hearing, Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., said he was concerned that spending $1 billion to hire veterans to tend to federal lands would be a waste of money.
"I've never heard a veteran express to me that's the route they would like to go," Boozman said.
Murray said the report looking at veterans' unemployment for all of 2011 shows that no option should be taken off the table at this stage of the debate.
Over the years, veterans have generally had more success finding work than non-veterans, but that has not been the case for many of those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Marvin Wells, who helps connect employers with returning guardsmen and reservists in Tennessee, said the unemployment rate is still high among the returning soldiers that he works with.
"I haven't seen a change for our returning solders. Two years, we had 3,000 come back and it was 25 percent (unemployment,)" Wells said. "Today we have 300 come back and it's still 25 percent."
Some analysts say that lengthy deployments for members of the National Guard and Reserves have made some employers wary of hiring veterans who are still active members.
"You really have to have dedicated employers who see the value in hiring a reservist and know what they bring to the table and say, `yeah, they may be gone for 6 to 9 or 12 months, but I'm willing to bring someone in temporarily to fill for them because I know the quality of person that military experience brings to my company,'" Wells said.
Schmiegel said that the Chamber of Commerce would continue to hold job fairs around the county and encourage businesses to hire veterans. While some large companies, such as Walt Disney Co. and General Electric, have made commitments to hire more veterans, he said that it's critical to get small businesses more involved in hiring vets.
Federal agencies are also looking to fill more positions with veterans. Veterans make up about 30 percent of the workforce at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Secretary Eric Shinseki has set a goal to increase that total to 40 percent. The Agriculture Department is also looking to hire veterans, mostly to fill firefighting and forest management positions. The department set a goal of veterans filling at least 17 percent of job openings, and it's exceeding that goal, said Secretary Tom Vilsack.
Vilsack said his department also has low-interest loans and grants available to veterans who want to start their own business or farm.
"If veterans don't want to work necessarily work for the government, they want to work for themselves, we have programs at the USDA designed to help folks who are dreaming those big dreams," Vilsack said.