Federal rules for hiring vets need simplifying

From the editorial board

A veteran speaks with a Department of Justice representative during a 2012 job fair in Washington, D.C. In 2015, 47.4 percent of new hires to full-time federal jobs were veterans.
A veteran speaks with a Department of Justice representative during a 2012 job fair in Washington, D.C. In 2015, 47.4 percent of new hires to full-time federal jobs were veterans. U.S. Army

Hiring veterans has been on The News Tribune’s community agenda since 2010. That year, the editorial board noted that the unemployment rate for veterans who had left the military during the previous three years was nearly twice the national average.

Yes, the nation was in the throes of the Great Recession, but many of those who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were having an even harder time finding work than other job seekers.

Today, happily, the picture is significantly brighter. The annual jobless rate last year for post-9/11 veterans was 5.8 percent, only half a percentage point higher than the average annual rate for the U.S. as a whole. The unemployment rate for all veterans (4.6 percent) was actually lower than the national rate.

Susan S. Kelly, head of the Department of Defense’s Transition to Veterans Program, attributes the good numbers to the improving economy and the fact that veterans possess “essential skills” – including leadership qualities, ability to handle stress, teamwork and critical thinking.

The Obama administration gave impetus to hiring veterans with its Joining Forces initiative in 2011, which called on all sectors to hire former military members and their spouses.

The federal government practiced what it preached, dramatically increasing the numbers of veterans hired into the federal workforce. Last year, 47.4 percent of its new hires to full-time jobs were veterans, and veterans now make up nearly 31 percent of the total federal workforce.

The aggressive push to hire veterans into federal ranks has not been without turmoil, however.

People close to the hiring process say there’s widespread confusion over a patchwork of laws and application of civil service rules that give veterans a 5-point preference over nonveterans (disabled veterans get an additional 5 points). That’s supposed to mean that if two candidates are equally qualified for a job, the veteran should get it.

Some veterans have complained when they didn’t get a job they thought they should have, but in many of those cases they were competing against at least one other veteran.

Federal employees also see problems. In a 2014 Merit Systems Protection Board report, a survey shows that 4.5 percent of workers said they believed an official in their agency knowingly violated veterans’ preference laws, while 6.5 percent believed a veteran had been “inappropriately favored.”

One problem often cited is that there are several different ways veterans are hired by the federal government, sometimes with conflicting rules, and even managers and human resources specialists who have undergone intensive training say the complexity can be confusing.

“The system is beyond unwieldy,” says the MSPB report. The board recommends Congress consider creating “a simpler system that would be easier to manage, apply and explain to those who will be affected by the decisions made under that system.”

That makes sense. Although veterans are having much more success today finding employment, the years ahead promise to present new challenges as the military continues to downsize. Congress should make the rules easier to understand for job seekers – with military or nonmilitary backgrounds – as well as for those doing the hiring.