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Fighting for Employment: Veterans in the '40s and Today

February 22, 2012
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For veterans returning from the devastation they had witnessed during World War II to the jubilance and normalcy that awaited them at home, the world must have felt like their oyster. Soldiers came back to heroes' welcomes and ticker-tape parades. Just like they had conquered the world.

What might not have been top-of-mind for those veterans was the job market that awaited them. Much like today's military personnel who leave behind the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, World War II vets returned home to financial uncertainty. That economic anxiety was the result of not-so-distant memories of the Great Depression while today's economy is shadowed by the ghost of the Great Recession. In both the '40s and today, the issue of military personnel returning from service has created challenges for employers, policymakers and the soldiers themselves.

"It is an adjustment. The military and the workplace are very different," says Jordan Moore, a member of the Oklahoma Air National Guard. After graduating from high school in 2008 and attending a year of college, she enlisted and spent two months in Iraq in late 2011.

Afterward, she connected with an organization, the Transportation Connections WorkAdvance in Tulsa, which is operated by Madison Strategies Group, a not-for-profit job-placement organization, and she entered a specialized training program that, among other things, helped her with her résumé, interviewing and interpersonal skills. That led to a paid internship as a diesel mechanic for Melton Trucking. She hopes to use her state GI Bill benefits to resume her studies at Oklahoma State University this summer while continuing with her job part time.

Moore, who comes from a military family, was lucky that she found a job relatively quickly. Not all veterans have found the same good fortune. Some companies are hesitant to hire former military personnel knowing that it takes time for some of them to re-acclimate to civilian life. Moore says she knows other veterans who have taken up to two years to find work. "They either had knowledge that was too highly specialized and couldn't adapt, or employers did not want to talk to them because of their military background. Fortunately, I found a company that is military-friendly."

Assimilating veterans back into society has always been a challenge. Over the past several decades, members of the armed forces have returned from a variety of wars and conflicts: World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Gulf War I and Gulf War II, and Afghanistan. Along the way, they have faced different political, social and economic situations, including how society views veterans, the benefits bestowed upon them, the type of work available and the overall state of the economy.

"Each generation of veterans is defined by the era in which they served," says Glenn Altschuler, Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University and co-author of The GI Bill: A New Deal for Veterans. However, no period had a greater influence on the military and society than World War II. "The 15.7 million veterans who returned had an undeniable impact on the American economy as well as attitudes about how to assimilate veterans returning from deployment."

Although World War II revved up the U.S. economy—bringing an unprecedented number of women into the workforce—and lowered unemployment from an estimated 9.9 percent for 1941 to an estimated low of 1.2 percent in 1944, it also raised concerns about what would happen to the 15.7 million veterans after the war ended. "The sheer magnitude of returning servicemen prompted concerns about the impact on the economy and the possibility of another Depression," Altschuler says.

In fact, a Gallup poll released in July 1944 reported that almost 50 percent of Americans anticipated that the number of unemployed people would range between 7 million and 20 million after the war. At the time, the numbers translated to between 14 and 34 percent of the civilian workforce. At the same time, the U.S. Labor Department projected an unemployment rate of about 25 percent. Indeed, in the April 1945 issue of Personnel Journal, Workforce Management's forbear, Charles Farmer of the U.S. Employment Service wrote that "55 to 60 million jobs must be provided if we are to have full employment after the war." Consequently, some organizations and observers—the American Legion was one—opposed the "outright demobilization" of those in the service without a proper job awaiting them upon their discharge, Altschuler says.

It was clear that some type of government program was required. A vigorous debate followed between Democrats and Republicans about how to best address America's changing needs. But on June 22, 1944, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Servicemen's Readjustment Act, better known today as the GI Bill. The Veterans Administration, as it was known then, was charged with carrying out the law's key provisions.

Among other things, the GI Bill appropriated $500 million for the construction of facilities for veterans, authorized unemployment compensation of $20 per week for a maximum of 52 weeks, offered job placement aid for vets and provided up to four years of education and training at an annual tuition rate of $500 along with a stipend ranging from $50 to $74 per month.

The GI Bill was a phenomenal success by any measure. More than half of all soldiers tapped the education benefit in one form or another. In fact, three years after it was passed, vets consisted of 49 percent of all college admissions, and these students quickly gained a reputation for their unwavering commitment to learning. "The GI Bill helped elevate the U.S. and provide the foundation for today's knowledge-based economy. It also provided vocational and technical training that was greatly needed at the time. The return on investment has been felt many times over," says J. Michael Haynie, executive director of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University.

At the same time, the public rallied around veterans, and employers were eager to hire them. "As traumatic and devastating as World War II was in terms of loss of life, those that came back alive were heroes because there was an enormous amount of national pride," says Charles Leo, a professor of management at Pepperdine University's Graziadio School of Business and Management. "If there was a choice to make, the veteran would be the one who was hired."

The GI Bill along with a positive sentiment toward veterans continued to provide dividends through the Korean War and beyond. By 1965, according to Altschuler, veterans enjoyed an average annual income of $5,100 compared with $3,200 for civilians. Moreover, veterans' unemployment rate was about half that of civilians, and it was clear that veterans' children were more likely to attend college as well.

In fact, the GI Bill has led to 14 Nobel laureates, two-dozen Pulitzer Prize winners, three Supreme Court justices, three U.S. presidents and scores of other leaders. The list includes venture capitalist Eugene Kleiner, who helped create Amazon.com, and surgeon and astronaut Story Musgrave. It also includes the likes of Johnny Carson, Harry Belafonte and retired Kansas Sen. Bob Dole.

However, attitudes about veterans during the Vietnam War led to changes. "Although soldiers continued to put their life on the line—and many who survived lost limbs and experienced the same trauma as their predecessors—they returned to an inhospitable environment that influenced attitudes about employment and work. There was a stigma attached to veterans," Leo says.

No less significant: The GI Bill had undergone fundamental changes after the original version expired in July 1956. For example, the original GI Bill paid a student's tuition directly to the educational institution. When the GI Bill was renewed, veterans began receiving a fixed monthly sum of $110. From that, they had to pay tuition, books and other living expenses. The change was initiated because some institutions had been caught overcharging students in an attempt to defraud the government.

The unintended consequence of all this change was that by the time Vietnam vets attempted to tap their educational benefit, tuition costs had risen and net payments to cover college expenses had decreased. The GI Bill was updated in 1974 and then again a decade later, when it was dubbed "The Montgomery Bill" for Mississippi Rep. Gillespie V. Montgomery. Unfortunately, by 2000, some veterans found themselves receiving only one-tenth of their total education costs. Finally, in 2008, Congress passed the most recent GI Bill, which has expanded benefits to include up to 100 percent tuition along with fees to cover books and supplies.

Says Haynie: "The jury is still out on whether the most recent GI Bill will have the same type of economic impact that the post-World War II bill had, but there's no question that it is a significant step forward."

As the 2.8 million men and women who have served since 2001 leave military service and return to civilian life, the United States is again facing important decisions about how to get veterans back to work. Today, despite a high level of support for troops and corporate hiring initiatives focused on veterans, the unemployment rate for returning military personnel hovers around 9 percent. The national unemployment rate was at 8.3 percent in January. "Many returning veterans face a difficult situation," Haynie says.

To ease the transition, President Barack Obama has proposed a number of changes for veterans returning from service. He supports incentives for hiring veterans as police officers and firefighters as well as putting veterans to work restoring land and resources through a Veterans Job Corps program. His plan also includes incentives for veteran entrepreneurship and small-business development. Under his proposal, the Small Business Administration, or SBA, would offer veterans in-depth training through an eight-week online program and would look to expand public-private partnerships.

One area where jobs won't be as plentiful is in the armed forces, themselves. With troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, the military is downsizing. For example, the U.S. Navy will break more than 3,000 contracts in 2012, and it has retained a leading outplacement firm to assist sailors with the displacements, says Wayne Wagner, who works in corporate outreach for the U.S. Navy.

"Although many veterans are looking for work, they are unable to land jobs," Haynie says. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistic points out that for the youngest male vets, ages 18 to 24, the unemployment rate is hovering around 33 percent vs. about 15 percent for their civilian counterparts. For young females, the rate is nearly 17 percent compared with about 7.8 percent for the general population. Part of the problem is clearly a lagging economy that's slow to rebound. But there are also fundamental changes taking place in the nature of the economy, including a decline in blue-collar jobs.

Ironically, many veterans exiting the armed forces are fluent in computers and technical skills that, at first glance, would seem to match employers' needs. They're also credited with possessing an industrious and positive attitude about work. "The biggest challenge," Haynie says, "is getting them to fully assimilate into civilian corporate culture. A lot of veterans simply aren't prepared to enter the workforce as they transition from a hierarchical culture to a matrix culture."

Assisting veterans is on the radar of a growing number of companies and political leaders. Aon Corp., Bank of America Corp., BNSF Railway Co., Google Inc. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to name a few—actively recruit veterans, provide training and accommodate special requirements. Last November, Obama signed the VOW to Hire Heroes Act. Among other things, it provides unemployed vets with up to one year of additional Montgomery GI Bill benefits and mandates Transition Assistance Program training for outgoing military personnel. Employers receive a tax incentive of up to $5,600 for hiring a veteran and $9,600 for hiring a disabled veteran—provided that the individual has been looking for work at least six months.

But many of today's vets are going it alone. About 30 percent of veterans are self-employed, says William Elmore, associate administrator for the SBA. According to 2007 U.S. Census Bureau data, these veterans' companies make up more than 3.6 million businesses generating upward of $1.65 trillion in economic activity. "Historically, many veterans have operated their own businesses. They have had a higher rate of self-employment than any other identifiable group," Elmore says. "It's a trend that's continuing to accelerate."

Make no mistake, veterans have played a key role in shaping the workplace and serving as a backbone for the U.S. economy. Meanwhile, the GI Bill—in all of its iterations—has not only put military personnel back to work but also profoundly affected the direction of the country. Noted business management guru Peter Drucker once described the GI Bill as "the most important event of the 20th century." He believed that it "signaled a shift to the knowledge society."

The path to the future will likely be paved with an understanding of the past—and the role veterans have played in society. Cornell's Altschuler describes Drucker's comments as a "sophisticated appraisal" of how a single public initiative could … unleash larger forces that would in turn transform the entire society. "Veterans have played an instrumental role in advancing society," Altschuler says. "They have and will continue to influence the direction of the country."

Samuel Greengard is a freelance writer based in West Linn, Oregon. To comment, email editors@workforce.com.

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