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Op-Ed

Benefits of Hiring Young Veterans

Thomas Lynch and Michael E. O’Hanlon

Most aspects of the Continental Army led by Gen. George Washington from 1776-1781 are long gone. Yet at least three remain relevant to the United States military of 2008: It is involved in a protracted war; it is composed of volunteers, not conscripts; and its personnel system features an open-loop, taking in and returning to civil society of more than 85 percent of its membership before age 35.

While members of a “Professional, All-Volunteer Force,” very few in the modern American military are lifelong professionals. A majority takes off the military uniform and permanently enters civilian life before age 25. Less than 15 percent of those who start active duty stay the minimum 20 years required for retirement.

Consequently, America’s post-service treatment of its young veterans is critical to the health of our volunteer force and the security of our 232-year-old country. The very future of our volunteer force is tied to the interface between prospective soldiers, their parents, and guardians, and the degree of post-military societal support these parents perceive can be expected for their sons or daughters upon departure from the military.

Surveys done for the Defense Department and the U.S. Army Accessions Command in 2007 tell us several important things relating contemporary American society to its citizen-Soldier military Roughly 90 percent of the new, nonprior-service men and women who enlist in our military are between 17 and 24 years of age. Our military must enlist more than 200,000 new recruits a year from this age cohort and any others who can be enticed to consider military service.

Yet fewer than 30 percent of the 4.2 million young Americans who turn 17 this year — and each forecast year through 2015 — will have the requisite set of characteristics for military service: a high school diploma or GED and no pre-existing sole-parent responsibilities, while also satisfying weight, medical and criminal record criteria. More than two-thirds plan to head directly for college, leaving fewer than 400,000 fully qualified young men and women under first-time consideration for military service each year.

These constrained numbers pose a significant wartime recruiting challenge made even more daunting when only 39 percent of parents and guardians report a willingness to support a young loved-one’s decision for military service — an all time low.

Controversial efforts by the Army in particular to widen enlistment eligibility criteria over the last couple years haven’t solved this recruiting dilemma. Extending the age limit for service entry, more readily accepting those who have a GED instead of a high school diploma, and being more forgiving of petty —as opposed to felony — juvenile criminal records only goes so far. None of these relaxed standards has altered the fundamental fact that parental concerns tell us much about whether our volunteer military will make or break growing manpower requirements.

Parental surveys indicate their most negative impression about military service — outside the understandable fear of death in combat — is that time in the military will not help get their child get a good civilian job. Many parents fear the civilian jobs playing field is not level and see it as skewed against young vets. Here, American businesses and civic organizations have a positive and powerful role to play.

To level the playing field in the eyes of parents, every midsize to large American business owner should establish a proactive hiring policy for young military veterans. Insist that young vets be looked at for all critical company positions. Resolve to look beyond the resume when evaluating young vets. Establish liaison with local veterans groups and leverage them to find nearby ex-military businessmen who can translate military jargon on resumes into business-relevant language, or to draw up a list of astute questions for use when interviewing an ex-military member that helps draw out hidden business-relevant talents and potential.

In addition, tie into the growing number of charitable nationwide Web sites that provide direct access to young military veterans seeking employment. Among these, Hire Vets First at www.hirevetsfirst.gov, Recruit Military at www.recruitmilitary.com; and, the recently launched Welcome Back Veterans at www.welcomebackveterans.org, are places to start.

The Little Caesar Corp. provides an exemplary business model. It created a Veterans Program that allows honorably discharged vets to qualify for up to $10,000 in franchisee and start-up equipment benefits. Vets with disabling military injuries can qualify for as much as $68,000 in start-up credits. It also provides special franchisee training for military veterans.

The Little Caesars program turned a year old in November 2007. It has already inspired a similar program beginning at Zero’s Subs, and should encourage thousands of similar initiatives across the country.

In Portland, Ore., the Chamber of Commerce Business Alliance recently launched a “Call to Action,” focusing its members on priority hiring programs for military veterans. Its commitment to sponsoring summits between military and business leaders and to military-focused career and benefits fairs sets an outstanding example. Private business and civic leaders should take cues from Little Caesars and the City of Portland, launching similar local programs.

While our young military veterans may face some unique issues, prospective employers need not fear violent crime and mental health disorders among these. Contrary to the misleading subtext in recent New York Times stories about young vets and violent crime, the May 2007 Justice Department Report actually shows military veterans have less than half the incarceration rate of the population at large. Furthermore, an analysis by Robert Bateman posted on the Committee of Concerned Journalists Web site demonstrates that even the worst-case numbers derived from the Times stories indicate young military veterans actually commit far fewer violent crimes per year than the 1999 Justice Department Crime Data reports for males aged 18-34.

And while post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a real issue for many vets who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is rapidly growing awareness, research, public funding and privately financed activities allowing for an array of PTSD preventative treatments and management programs that are far more robust and available than even five years ago.

Despite strong personal feelings about the war in Iraq, the vast majority of Americans asks often how they can help our veterans and help our nation. Significant help can come from assisting young military veterans convert their talents and skills into productive jobs. Businesses that reach out to young veterans will find that they reap benefits in terms of a positive business reputation and a robust bottom line.

Beyond the bottom line, a nationwide network of commercial and civic military-to-civilian jobs programs will send a powerful positive message to parents and guardians, showing them that the playing field is level. Such a network also will demonstrate Main Street America’s unwavering support for a professional modern military that, while undeniably competent and dedicated, remains based on the same foundation of volunteer service-and-return to American society that underpinned Gen. George Washington’s Continental Army.

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