January 29, 2020

Veteran Pathways to Employment: Hurdles and Opportunities

Introduction and Executive Summary

The issue of employment for post-9/11 veterans came to a head nearly a decade ago, when the national economy was ailing and a spike in veteran unemployment coincided with the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Following the first nine years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the well-being of the veteran community was a major public concern. This concern was heightened in the aftermath of the economic crash of 2008. The overall economy was reeling, but available data showed that unemployment was particularly high among America’s post-9/11 veterans. This confluence of factors led to concerted efforts to understand and to rectify the challenges facing veterans seeking work.

Two notable efforts mobilized the federal government and the private sector to address the challenges of veteran unemployment. Then-First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden established the Joining Forces initiative to mobilize public and private sector efforts to serve and support the veteran community, helping catalyze major corporate efforts around veteran employment. Meanwhile, within the federal government, Congress mandated the first revamp of the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) since 1991 to update and improve support to transitioning service members. These government efforts coincided with increased philanthropic attention and commitments to address the needs of veterans.

Thanks to these initiatives and an improved economy, veteran unemployment has decreased significantly in the intervening years. Despite overall low veteran unemployment, however, there is emerging research indicating that many veterans are experiencing “underemployment” or facing challenges in finding meaningful, post-service employment. This alienation from the civilian labor market appears in numerous surveys indicating dissatisfaction with opportunities after service.

The 2019 National Defense Authorization Act has prescribed new changes to TAP to better prepare service members for transition and to better match them with civilian job opportunities. Given these changes, and the evolving civilian workforce landscape, this report seeks to review existing literature on the state of veteran employment efforts. Combined with interviews with leading academics, nonprofit leaders working on veteran transition issues, and civilian employers, this report seeks to identify the hurdles, and opportunities, currently facing veterans as they seek worthwhile employment. The focus of this report is not on government services, but on areas where civilian sector efforts can make a positive difference in veteran transition outcomes. This report offers several areas where coordinated efforts from the private sector could create stronger pathways to meaningful employment for veterans.

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  1. Vanessa Williamson, “Supporting Our Troops, Veterans, and their Families: Lessons Learned and Future Opportunities in Philanthropy,” California Community Foundation, November 2009, https://www.calfund.org/wp-content/uploads/CCF_IADIF_FullReport_WebOptimized-1.pdf.


  • Dr. Jason Dempsey

    Adjunct Senior Fellow, Military, Veterans, and Society Program

    Jason Dempsey is an Adjunct Senior Fellow of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Dr. Dempsey has written on American ...

  • Amy Schafer

    Former Research Associate, Military, Veterans, and Society Program

    Amy Schafer is a former fellow at the Center for a New American Security, where she focuses on civil-military relations, issues facing military families and veterans, and mili...

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