It has been a festering problem in this nation. We honor veterans with handshakes, perhaps a free beer and always warm sentiments in our hearts. We love veterans and admire the sacrifices they and their families have made for this country. Yet, as Howard Schultz (CEO of Starbucks) said in his recent book, “For Love of Country,” we love to thank veterans for their service, but that’s where the interest ends.

Our love certainly does not extend to the workplace. In the workplace, we treat veterans as if they have no previous work history.

A couple of weeks ago, I had lunch with a high-level executive of a Fortune 100 company. The topic was his son, who was a Marine sniper with tours to Afghanistan and Iraq, and specifically his future employment options.

“Well, he’s going to have a hard time finding work because he has that four-year gap in his résumé,” the executive said.

I was stunned. Usually, I hear comments like that from people who don’t know any veterans. Here was a father displaying little understanding of the skills his son had learned — a perfect microcosm of the veteran employment problem, the complete perception gap between veteran skills and employer needs.

As I walked out of the restaurant, all I could think about was that if this man’s son had spent those four years sitting on a beach drinking pina coladas, his father likely would have said the exact same thing.

It is indeed incredible that serving our country creates a negative employment outcome. Yet a January 2015 Bureau of Labor Statistics report showed that the unemployment rate for veterans under age 30 is 10 percent. For nonveterans of the same age, the unemployment rate is 6.6 percent.

So if you’ve put service before self and have graduated from difficult leadership and technical schools, then your unemployment rate is 50 percent higher than that of your peers.

It has gotten so bad that the federal government has imposed a mandate that becomes enforceable as of March 24. It will require that any company with a government contract over $100,000 must work to hire veterans.

This is an update to the Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act and I can’t wait to see what will happen, because I know that corporate America is not ready — not by a long shot.

I am amazed at what the necessity for this law shows. For the very first time, a career choice can legally define a protected class.

For companies, the new mandate becomes enforceable as part of a company’s 2015 Affirmative Action plan, establishing a hiring benchmark commensurate with the national veteran population: 7.2 percent.

If companies do not meet this benchmark, they risk eventually losing their government contracts.

Time and again I meet companies struggling to fully grasp the kind of skills a veteran can bring to a job — leadership, teamwork, problem-solving under pressure, technical skills, etc. So I understand how we are now in this disorienting place: creating an affirmative-action group predicated on previous employment. Because when it comes to hiring, veterans are suffering discrimination. Veterans face the very real prospect of earning less than their civilian peers as they transition to a nonmilitary career.

While the readjustment-act mandate helps raise awareness and drive effort among government contractors, the real difference can happen in companies that understand and accept the fact that military service does not equate to a “résumé gap.”

Mandates are discouraging in that they set the bar at “enough” — and no higher. If the readjustment-act mandate sparks more interest in hiring veterans as March 24 approaches, that’s good. But that still does not effectively address discrimination. Things will not get better until more companies learn to view a veteran’s real job skills equally alongside a civilian colleague’s.

I meet plenty of human resources managers who show a desire to hire more veterans but lack the resources that will give them an understanding of everything a veteran can bring to a job.

Veterans are missing out on meaningful civilian work, and corporations are missing out on intensely trained and incredibly skilled candidates who could help them exceed their company goals. A mandate does not fill this gap. But it is another step down the path to ending this discrimination.

 

Nick Swaggert was an infantry officer with the U.S. Marine Corps from 1999-2010. Based in St. Paul, he is the director of Genesis10’s Veterans Program. See http://www.genesis10.com/us-military-veterans/about/.