Disabled Vets Post Stunning Job Gains as Economy Remains Hot Despite Inflation

The Department of Veterans Affairs Veteran Employment Services Office (VESO) hosts a hiring fair
The Department of Veterans Affairs Veteran Employment Services Office (VESO) hosts a hiring fair. (VA photo by Robert Turtil)

Employment numbers suggest that veterans have taken advantage of a robust economy fueled by the easing of the COVID-19 pandemic and ample federal funding to record major success in the jobs market and start businesses of their own. But the battle to tame inflation could put those gains in jeopardy.

The numbers for veterans at times have been so positive that those who collect the data have been shocked, as was the case last week with the Annual Warrior Survey put out by the Wounded Warrior Project, or WWP.

The survey of more than 19,300 wounded, ill and injured veterans, representing about 165,000 WWP members and billed as the most comprehensive survey of wounded post-9/11 vets, turned up data that was better than every previous WWP survey since 2010.

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The unemployment rate for those veterans had always been in the double digits, likely because 78.1% of them have disability ratings of 70% or more with the Department of Veterans Affairs. But the latest survey showed that the rate had been cut nearly in half -- from 13.4% in 2021 to 6.8% in 2022.

"I have to tell you I'm pretty surprised," said Jennifer Silva, a West Point graduate and former Army lieutenant who serves as chief program officer for WWP. "We're still trying to figure it out, since it was such a big drop."

Former Army Sgt. Mike Carrasquillo, who was shot five times on patrol in 2005 while serving with the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Afghanistan's Paktika province, had a hunch that disabled vets last year began taking advantage of expanded job opportunities to work remotely from home as the nation came out of the pandemic -- just as he did.

Following his medical discharge from the Army in 2007, Carrasquillo spent two years at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and went through more than 40 surgeries for his multiple wounds. "It was an uphill battle getting use of my limbs back," he said in an interview.

With help from WWP's Warriors to Work program, Carrasquillo applied for work at the VA, went through its training program, and now works at home as an IT project manager for the department.

"I wanted to serve vets; that's where my passion is," he said. "I was just very lucky I got selected for the program."

Low-Paying Jobs Complicate Situation

The success of Carrasquillo and others like him in the jobs market has taken a major bite out of the disabled veteran unemployment rate, but the jobs veterans are finding often are low paying and make it difficult to cope with inflation.

"They're still stressed out financially," said Silva. "They may be employed but not at the level where they can be financially well."

She cited the WWP survey, which showed that 64% of the 19,300 disabled vets who responded said they "couldn't make ends meet at some point in the past 12 months." More than 80% said that inflation was causing them financial hardships.

The surge of disabled vets in the jobs market has matched improving rates for veterans overall who have outperformed the predictions of market analysts and survived Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell's eight interest rate hikes last year to cool off the economy and curb inflation.

For nine months last year, the unemployment rate for veterans was below 3%, according to the monthly reports from the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics; in January, the BLS reported that the unemployment rate for veterans and the general population stood at 3.4%, the lowest monthly mark since 1969.

The numbers for how well veterans have done in starting up businesses are harder to come by, but the data available indicates that veteran entrepreneurs have benefited from the jolt to the economy from the easing of the COVID pandemic and from the Biden administration's $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan of March 2021.

The periodic business application and formation statistics report from the U.S. Census Bureau recorded explosive growth in business startups as the pandemic eased, and the report issued Feb. 10 showed that business applications for January 2023 totaled 420,987, an increase of 0.9% over December.

Nearly one in five business startups fail in the first year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but the 2021 National Survey of Military-Affiliated Entrepreneurs put out by the D'Aniello Institute of Veterans & Military Families (IVMF) at Syracuse University suggested that military training made veterans better equipped to deal with adversity.

The IVMF survey took note of a "surge in entrepreneurship in the U.S. since the pandemic. The pandemic has created conditions favorable for entrepreneurship," adding that "veterans are more likely than their civilian peers to start and run their own businesses."

Rosalinda Vasquez Maury, the director of Applied Research and Analytics at IVMF and one of the authors of the survey, said in an interview that "there has been a relationship between military status and entrepreneurship."

"We do make the case that, due to military training, there's a set of skills -- for example, adaptability and resiliency -- that are highly transferable in an entrepreneurship setting," she said. "It does create a really good situation for veterans to thrive."

The IVMF survey cited a lack of access to capital and financing as the major barrier to veteran startups but also noted a greater willingness among veterans than their civilian peers to take risks in securing funding to get their businesses off the ground.

Former Air Force Sgt. Leanne King was one of those veterans who took a huge risk with the family finances to get her human resources startup going in San Antonio. "It's hard to get a loan, a line of credit," she said in an interview, and so "I made [the] decision to borrow from my son's college fund."

With that initial funding, she was able to set herself up as president and CEO of SeeKing HR, which "offers human resource services on a just-in-time basis, for a cost-effective price" in the San Antonio area, and she paid back her son's college fund with interest.

From her experience as an entrepreneur, and from her continuing relationship with IVMF, King said that the resilience veterans bring with them from their military training makes them uniquely suited to dealing with the inevitable setbacks that will come with starting a business.

She said that, for the veterans, "There's always a target, always a goal. Now what do we do to get there?"

Marine Vet Gives Back to Uvalde Hometown

The goal for former Marine Sgt. Jose Gonzales was to strengthen the sense of community in his hometown of Uvalde, Texas, with a physical fitness startup, but first he had to see to his own mental and physical fitness.

He had suffered back and elbow injuries from a suicide bombing in Iraq and then experienced post-traumatic stress disorder as he recovered. He found relief through the physical fitness program in San Antonio run by the Semper Fi & America's Fund, and the idea began to form of returning to Uvalde, Gonzales said in an interview.

Lisa Killeen, a senior case manager with the Semper Fi & America's Fund, said that Gonzales "came to me to talk about this fitness idea he had. I assigned a coach to give him business guidance, to help him get started."

Gonzales said he got started in Uvalde by going to a local sports field, setting up cones and hurdles, and running his own kids through some drills. Other kids asked whether they could join, and then their parents, and soon Gonzales was looking for a place to set up a business.

With a grant from the fund, he opened the Hustle Fitness gym in Uvalde and was building his business when gunfire sounded down the halls and into the classrooms of cowering children at Robb Elementary School last May 24.

Nineteen students and two teachers were killed in the mass shooting allegedly carried out by 18-year-old Salvador Ramos, a former Robb Elementary student.

Gonzales shut down Hustle Fitness in response but gradually began to reopen. "You can't ask a parent to get over losing a child, but there are ways to make the community a little healthier, so that's my mission," he said in an interview. "I wanted to do this for my community. I have to give something back.

"I'm pretty comfortable with where I'm at. I think I have a good product," Gonzales said, but whether his success will continue will likely depend on whether the nation goes into recession later this year as the result of continuing interest rate hikes by the Federal Reserve aimed at curbing inflation.

In a Feb. 21 report, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projected a downturn this year for what has been an unusually robust economy and a rise in unemployment to 5% as a result of the Fed's rate hikes, but other analysts foresee the possibility that the jobs market could remain strong even as inflation ticks down.

In a Feb. 6 report, the investment bank Goldman Sachs lowered its expectation that the U.S. will go into recession in the next 12 months from a probability of 35% to 25%.

The report noted that the consensus among analysts put the probability of a major downturn in the economy over the next 12 months at 65%, but "our own economic analysis rates that probability much lower."

"Part of our disagreement with consensus arises from our more optimistic view on whether a recession is necessary to tame inflation," the Goldman Sachs report said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

Related: Huge Hiring Burst in January of 517,000 Jobs Brings Down Vets' Unemployment Rate to 2.8%

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