What Military Reservists Can Do To Change Bleak Employment Outlook

Employment gains for returning troops have been on the rise over the past few years, thanks to tax credits for employers, more recruitment events and new online tools to aid the job search process. 

For returning National Guard members and other military reservists, however, the picture is a bit bleaker.

National Guard soldiers and airman have high unemployment rates.

The face of unemployment may change over time, but it remains a persistent problem. For returning troops, the rate of joblessness is especially high.

Unemployment is estimated to be about 20 percent among returning National Guard soldiers and airmen. That’s nearly twice the rate for all military veterans who’ve served since September 2001 (10 percent in October), and two and a half times the rate of the general population (7.9 percent in October).

Why are reservists struggling to find jobs? And what is being done to resolve this apparent unemployment crisis?

Unique Challenges

There are several possible explanations for the shockingly high rates of unemployment among the nation’s more than 1 million military reservists. Some employers might be reluctant to hire them because, unlike other veterans entering the civilian workforce, they can be called up again.

Indeed, writes Maj. Kristina Stanger, a member of the Iowa Army National Guard: “Employing a member of the Guard or Reserve can come with challenges. Employers have to adapt to military schedules and find ways to make do when the service member deploys.”

While Stanger’s blog post praises her employer for accommodating the circumstances of her service, her situation is not typical — according to research and other anecdotal evidence. For many employers, it’s easier to not hire employees with such special circumstances. And while federal law makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against applicants on the basis of military service, such discrimination can be difficult to prove.

In a February hearing before Congress’ Veterans Affairs Committee on this issue, Rep. Bruce L. Baily (D-Iowa) noted that he’d heard of unemployed reservists were downplaying their military service because they felt it counted against them in the hiring process.

Reservist Adam Bryant says he understands that logic.

“If you have two guys in front of you, same skill set, same experience, but one is gonna be gone all the time and the other isn’t… It’s an obvious choice,” said Bryant, a member of the Army National Guard who works odd jobs and helps out at a cousin’s business when he’s home. “I’m proud of my service. But I don’t want it to keep me from my dream job.”

Additionally, National Guard members’ service records might not qualify them for the tax credits employers get for hiring other veterans. Troops must be able to provide discharge paperwork that shows 180 days of qualified active duty to be eligible.

“Everything about our service is unique,” Bryant said. “A lot of times our members are right there alongside other active-duty troops. But our situation is more fluid, and that means we don’t always have the same edge.”

Mission: Employable

Despite improvements overall in the job market, drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan mean 1 million service members are expected to enter the civilian workforce over the next five years, according to reports from the Pentagon. Thus competition for employment remains fierce.

National Guard branches in several states are working to reduce the number of unemployed reservists. In Oklahoma, for example, job fairs and employment programs specifically designed for these individuals have led to 150 jobs since June. Meanwhile, in California, programs such as Work for Warriors have provided training and certification opportunities for Guard members in several fields. That organization says it has been contacted by nearly 1,800 Guard members, and that it has found work for more than 300, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times.

For the youngest reservists, the ones that signed up soon after high school graduation, a lack of job history is another factor that makes it hard to get hired. To that end, the National Guard is also urging its members to enroll in its apprenticeship program. The Guard Apprenticeship Program Initiative teaches service members occupational and trade skills, and a chance to “earn while you learn.”

Photo courtesy Kheel Center, Cornell University.