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Many TN Veterans Facing Tough Employment Prospects

At an event near the Capitol in Nashville to honor Tennessee veterans, Gov. Bill Haslam said last week that men and women who served in the military are typically well-suited for the workforce, but often they encounter unique challenges in actually finding jobs.

“You have folks who are coming back looking for maybe a specific employment opportunity that might not exist. Or maybe they had the right training and maybe they didn’t in the military, and they need to access the training,” Haslam told reporters Nov. 6 after a Governor’s Veterans Day ceremony in which he delivered a statement of gratitude to four long-term state employees who previously served in the armed forces.

The governor said he’s sensitive to difficulties vets often face in the job market. He indicated his administration is trying to link veterans’ with steady-wage prospects as well as lend them assistance developing skills that are in demand if someone who’s left the military is lacking in that area.

Haslam said jobs with companies the administration is recruiting to locate “advanced manufacturing” facilities here are also helping vets earn paychecks.

His ongoing efforts to encourage Tennesseans to pursue paths in learning beyond high school is aimed at returned service members, too, Haslam said. “It’s one of the reasons we’re working really hard to increase adult access to post-secondary education, because a lot of our veterans are saying, ‘I need a different skill set than what I thought I needed when I first went into the military,’” he said.

Currently, more than 3,000 state government employees have also served in the United States military, which the governor said reflects a commitment on his administration’s part to take specials steps to hire former members of the armed services whenever possible. “About 10 percent of our total state workforce are veterans, and it matches up with the almost 10 percent of Tennesseans who have served in the military as well,” Haslam said.

In 2012, the the Haslam administration won legislative passage of the Tennessee Excellence, Accountability and Management Act, a civil-service system revamp that reformed state government hiring and firing practices. One of the TEAM Act’s requirements is that the state give “interview preference” to veterans and their spouses when considering “appointments and promotions.” The idea is that “if there are two candidates with equal qualifications, knowledge, skills, etc., preference will be given to the veteran,” according to an administration press release issued when the governor signed the law a year and a half ago.

Tennessee has generally struggled with higher unemployment the past few years. The state’s rate, most recently 8.5 percent, has stubbornly hovered above the national average, now 7.3 percent. Volunteer State veterans as a subset of Tennessee’s total population look to be faring better, with a 2012 rate of 7.3 percent.

But for veterans who served in the military after the attacks of September 11, the picture is much bleaker.

A report issued last spring that indicates job prospects for veterans are improving in the nation as a whole also shows that in 2012 Tennessee had one of the highest unemployment rates for “post-9/11 veterans” of any state in America.

Joblessness among post-9/11 veterans in Tennessee neared 21 percent last year, more than five points above any neighboring state, according to research compiled in May by the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee‘s Vice Chair Amy Klobuchar, a Senate Democrat from Minnesota.

  • Tennessee – 20.7
  • Mississippi – 15.3
  • Georgia – 13.9
  • Kentucky – 13.2
  • North Carolina – 12.4
  • Alabama – 6.7
  • Missouri – 6.7
  • Arkansas – 5.4
  • Virginia – 3.7

Haslam said he wasn’t aware Tennessee’s unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans was that high. But the governor’s veterans affairs chief said that with respect to state government jobs, the administration is doing all it can to carry out the TEAM Act’s stipulations on preferential hiring for former armed services members.

“Since the TEAM Act went into effect in October of 2012, the state has hired 717 veterans,” said Many-Bears Grinder, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Veteran Affairs, who has 35 years of experience in the National Guard.

She added that her agency has formed a partnership with the Department of Economic and Community Development to assist veterans with small businesses. Also, efforts are ongoing to connect work-seeking veterans with employers seeking to hire, Grinder said, such as providing resume tips on the Department of Veterans Affairs website and hooking veterans up with job fairs like the statewide “Paychecks for Patriots” event it hosted on Oct. 17.

As for the TEAM Act and government jobs, the Tennessee State Employees Association executive director, Robert O’Connell, said it doesn’t necessarily or automatically lead to more veterans getting hired. When the TEAM Act took effect it nixed the previous point-system scheme that gave special merit-valuation for prior military service, he said.

When the General Assembly was wrangling over the governor’s civil service overhaul in 2012, TSEA credited itself with successfully lobbying to amend the proposed legislation to restore “veteran’s preference in hiring,” which was absent in the TEAM Act when it was introduced.

State hiring practices are now “more subjective,” said O’Connell, who is also a veteran. Nevertheless, he said it is true that under the TEAM Act, “if the administration wants to hire more veterans, they can.”

“If they wanted to hire only veterans, they could probably end up doing it under this system, whereas they couldn’t do it under the old system,” said O’Connell.

According to figures cited in Sen.  Klobuchar’s report to Congress’s Joint Economic Committee, 257,000 of the Tennessee’s 525,000 veterans are considered to be in the workforce. About 48,000 of those are post-9/11 vets with 10,000 unemployed.

By comparison, Virginia has 143,000 post-9/11 veterans with 5,000 unemployed, Georgia’s has 108,500 with 15,000 unemployed, North Carolina has 89,000 with 11,000 unemployed, Alabama has 52,000 with 3,000 unemployed, Missouri has 37,000 with 3,000 unemployed, Kentucky has 29,000 with 4,000 unemployed, Mississippi has 19,000 with 3,000 unemployed and Arkansas has 16,000 with 1,000 unemployed.

The two states with higher rates of unemployment for post-9/11 veterans than Tennessee were Nevada with a rate of 22.6 percent and Massachusetts with a rate of 23.4 percent. The national post-9/11 veteran unemployment rate was 9.9 percent.