LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE

Soaring unemployment that has bedeviled Iraq- and Afghanistan-era veterans for five years has finally reversed.

The jobless rate dropped to an annual average of 9.9% last year from 12.1% in 2011, labor statistics show.

"It looks like it peaked in 2011 and has since been coming down," saysJames Borbely, an economist for the Bureau of Labor Statistics whostudies veteran data. "We're looking at a rate that has clearlyimproved."

Veteran advocates caution that joblessness among thisgroup remains stubbornly high - well above the national unemploymentrate of 7.8%. About 205,000 of those who served in or during the Iraqand Afghanistan wars are without work.

As the Afghanistan War winds down, more than 300,000 veterans will leave the military each of the next four years.

"We'vegot more miles to go. But it's clear we're marching in the rightdirection," says Tommy Sowers, assistant secretary for public andintergovernmental affairs for the Department of Veterans Affairs and aformer Green Beret who served two combat tours in Iraq.

PaulRieckhoff, founder and chief executive of the 250,000-member Iraq andAfghanistan Veterans of America, warned against complacency.

"Evenwith this dip in the annual rate for the year, no one should beanywhere near satisfied," Rieckhoff says. "We've got hundreds ofthousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans out of work and that shouldbe unacceptable to all Americans."

The marginal employment successwas attributed primarily to an improving economy. Veteran leaders alsosee the reversal as proof that a tougher focus on joblessness among newveterans by the White House, Congress, communities, labor unions andbusiness has paid off.

Sowers notes that 880,000 ex-servicemembershave taken advantage of the new post-9/11 G.I. Bill for university orvocational education.

More employers display an eagerness to hireyoung veterans they see as disciplined self-starters willing to show upon time, says Lt. Gen. Howard Bromberg, head of Army personnel, who hasmet with recruiters from several major companies.

"These guys out there, they want our soldiers," Bromberg says.

"Itjust makes good bottom-line sense to hire veterans," Labor SecretaryHilda Solis says. "They've been tested, time and again, inpressure-cooker situations."

Many businesses are better informedabout issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder and how they affectonly a minority of applicants or can be like any other disability, saysNancy Hammer, a senior policy official with the Society for HumanResource Management, an association of hiring professionals.

She says some employers still struggle to understand how a veteran's combat skills can translate into assets for employers.

The jobs data for Iraq- and Afghanistan-era veterans contain other trends both good and bad:

  • Joblessness remains high among a sub-group of veterans who have had the hardest time finding work - those ages 18 to 24 - although that rate also is declining. One in four of them were unemployed in 2011. That dropped to one in five last year.
  • For women who served, jobs remain scarce. Their unemployment rate inched higher, from 12.4% to 12.5% last year, and from about 35,000 out of work to 37,000, the data show.

RetiredArmy colonel David Sutherland, director of the Center for Military andVeterans Community Services in Washington, says the unemployment numbersleave him "cautiously optimistic."

"But I see a trend on thehorizon with the upcoming draw-down of our forces ... where if we don'tdo more community-based support, that (jobless) number will go back up."

LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE