At American Legion convention in Mpls, spotlight on unemployed vets

Red Bulls
In this file photo, National Guard members prepare Humvees before taking them out onto the practice range at Camp Ripley in Little Falls, Minnesota, on November 20, 2010.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

When President Barack Obama returns to Minnesota next week to speak to the American Legion national convention in Minneapolis, he'll be addressing a familiar issue: unemployment.

But when he takes the podium, he'll be talking to a group that's endured the nation's economic downtown in a different way than most Americans impacted by the recession.

A recent study by the Joint Economic Committee of Congress showed Minnesota has one of the highest rates of joblessness in the nation for post-Sept. 11 veterans. The report found that almost 22.9 percent of veterans who've served since the 2001 terrorist attacks are unemployed. That's more than three times the unemployment rate for civilians.

It's a set of statistics the Saville family, of Bovey, knows all too well.

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When National Guardsman Paul Saville, 31, returned from his second deployment to Iraq last year, he couldn't find a job. Work in his civilian field, union carpentry and construction, had all but dried up in their small town about 20 miles north of Grand Rapids, Minn.

His wife, Dana Saville, 38, said losing her husband's income put the family of five deeper into debt.

"Yeah, we've been scraping by, scraping by the best that we can based on his Guard checks, when he would go to drill or the few months that he did work," she said. "We've pretty much just been living on unemployment, which is so strange for the both of us because I don't think I've ever collected unemployment and we've never had to do that."

Things are looking up. Paul started a new job just last week. It's a huge relief, Dana said.

"Well, he's pretty happy. I think it's hard enough for soldiers to come home and feel like they are back in the small world again," she said. "Then, on top of that, you add unemployment and all of that, so he's pretty excited when he got the phone call that he'd be going to work. We were ecstatic to say the least."

The Saville family's experience is increasingly common.

Unemployment among veterans, regardless of the rate, is too high for Jim Finley, director of Veterans Employment Services for the state's Department of Employment and Economic Development.

But while numbers are bad, they might be a little misleading, he said.

Many service members go straight from deployment to college on the GI Bill. Many weren't working before they left, and unemployment is high among young people right now. The problem of joblessness among younger veterans is serious, Finley said. He partly blames the recession.

"A lot of those folks who count on those entry level jobs -- new Americans, new college graduates, veterans coming out of the service -- the jobs weren't there."

But Finley points out research that shows veterans often have trouble explaining their military experience to civilian employers.

"In Minnesota about seven percent of the population are veterans, so when these young men and women are going out and talking to businesses, about 93 percent of the people they are talking to are not veterans," Finley said. He said employers also need more education about the military and how deployment works.

As a military wife, Dana Saville agrees. She says military veterans bring valuable experience to the civilian job market.

"Those are transferable skills and I think the more employers can recognize that and encourage people to apply," she said. "Just consider the skills that it takes to be deployed to another country and to work as a team the way they have to."

Obama also recognizes the problem. He's promoting a proposal to offer tax credits and other incentives to employers who hire unemployed veterans. His plan would also provide more training and education for veterans and veteran business owners.