Friday, January 4, 2013

Joining Forces: 125,000 Veterans Hired, but Fewer Working [Updated]

    The official White House blog has been posting highlights from 2012 under the heading Year in Review.  A post on Sunday featured Joining Forces, the program jointly chaired by Michelle Obama and Joe Biden to promote employment among veterans.  But actual government employment statistics suggest that the program may not be as successful as it appears on the surface.
In August of 2011, President Obama challenged the private sector to hire or train 100,000 veterans and military spouses by the end of 2013. In August of this year, First Lady Michelle Obama visited Mayport Naval Station in Florida to announce that 2,000 American companies had stepped up to the challenge, and had already exceeded that goal, hiring 125,000 veterans and military spouses more than a year ahead of schedule. 
In addition, those companies doubled down on their commitment to our troops and military families and made a new promise, a pledge to hire or train an additional 250,000 of our nation's heroes, including 50,000 military spouses.
    The 125,000 figure cited in this Year in Review post is the same used in contemporaneous news accounts in August, as well as in this Defense Department news article from August 22, 2012, which also included these statistics:
Unemployment still is too high for veterans and military spouses, but Joining Forces has helped to push the national veteran unemployment rate down nearly 20 percent from a year ago, Obama said. The veteran unemployment rate in July was 6.9 percent, compared to 8.6 percent in July 2011, Joining Forces officials said during a call with reporters yesterday.
    Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank did not provide any update on the veterans-hired figures on December 12 when she announced an expansion of the initiative:
[B]ack in August 2011, the president challenged American businesses to hire or train 100,000 unemployed veterans and military spouses by the end of 2013. 
The response was overwhelming. Two thousand companies stepped up–including some of yours, I’m sure. And as the First Lady announced in August, we surpassed the goal a full year ahead of schedule. 
So now it’s time to do what any good military officer or CEO with an overperforming team would do–It’s time to raise the bar. The companies involved in Joining Forces have a new goal of hiring or training an additional 250,000 veterans and military spouses by the end of 2014.
    I have not been able to find the raw statistics to back up the 125,000 figure cited by Mrs. Obama and other Joining Forces spokespersons.  It is not clear how the White House is tracking how many veterans have been hired as a result of Joining Forces.  The Military Times reported in October 2012 that while the White House declined to provide details to confirm the 125,000, the Military Times had confirmed the figure by other means (via IFA Smart Brief):
The White House has declined to confirm 125,000 veterans and military spouses have been hired as part of its Joining Forces initiative, but Military Times was "able to verify the numbers from a variety of government and industry sources." IFA reported that by mid-August, 4,200 veterans and military spouses had become new franchise owners, while 3,000 became franchise employees. 
    The White House did include a listing of some of the companies involved in a document released on the first anniversary of the program's launch.  However, that document contains the word commit (committed/commitment) 138 times; this was primarily a list of intentions, not actual results.

    In any case, Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers confirm the 8.6% to 6.9% drop mentioned in the article above.  During that same time, national unemployment as a whole dropped from 9.1% to 8.3% from July 2011 to July 2012, a decrease of 9% versus the more impressive 20% decrease for the rate among veterans.

    However, a closer look at the numbers paints a somewhat less rosy picture.  As has been the complaint in the broader unemployment rate figures as of late, the participation rate may be the key.  Here's Table A-5 from BLS's July 2012 unemployment report, with the December 2012 column tacked on:

    While the number of unemployed dropped from 975,000 to 752,000 during the year, look at the number employed.  July 2011: 10,412,000.  July 2012: 10,173,000.  So during the 12-month period in which Joining Forces spurred the hiring of 125,000 veterans, the total number of employed veterans dropped 239,000.  Note the participation rate in July 2011: 52.7%.  In July 2012: 51.6%.  The rate has dropped again as of the latest report for December 2012 to 51.3%, with total employed veterans reported as 10,050,000.  The unemployment rate among veterans risen to 7%, and the actual number of employed veterans is now 362,000 below the July 2011 benchmark.  Although the number of unemployed veterans has dropped 218,000 from July 2011 to December 2012, the decrease in the participation rate (presumably due to a combination of retirements, deaths, disability, and discouraged job-seekers, among other factors) is more responsible for the drop in the unemployment rate since July 2011 rather than an increase in number of veterans working.

    I am not suggesting there have not been veterans who have benefited from this initiative.  Criticism of a government program, especially one aimed at helping the unquestionably deserving, is often deflected by anecdotal evidence of families or individuals who have received needed assistance.  Critics are made to look selfish and heartless.  However, the overall effectiveness of the government's timeand use of tax dollars must still be evaluated.  Would those who have been hired through this program been hired anyway?  Are the veterans just replacing non-veterans who were let go to make room?  Are some companies just seeking a short-term tax credit available for hiring veterans?

    A more detailed report from the White House on the results from Joining Forces could answer these questions, but there does not appear to even be a mechanism in place for the results to be audited.  Good intentions cannot replace accountability, and if any group in our country can appreciate accountability, our veterans can.  They deserve to know if Joining Forces is truly helping them integrate into the civilian workforce, or if it is just helping to mask the larger issue of weak employment that has been impacting the country as a whole for the last four years.

Note: This post was originally published on January 1, 2013, but was updated for December unemployment figures released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on January 4, 2013.

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