When we meet a woman veteran, we are often shocked because she defies our expectations: our expectations of who she is, our expectations of what she is capable of and where she has been … and most of all, our expectations of WHO a veteran is.
Acknowledging these fundamental questions is at the very heart of what has become known here at the Labor Department as the Women Veterans Initiative, a program designed to tackle the problem of women veterans unemployment head on. These questions reflect the spirit of our approach, which is about so much more than programmatic tweaks or minor administrative changes. It is about recasting the very essence of how we approach the challenges women veterans face when they transition to civilian employment. We ask the same questions some women veterans ask themselves, and the answers take us to new and unexpected places.
In 2012, 8.3 percent of women veterans faced unemployment, while male veteran unemployment dropped to 6.9 percent and women non-veterans to 7.7 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent annual report on veterans employment. While the statistical sample for women veterans is small, the fact that their unemployment rate did not decline in similar measure to their counterparts reinforces the urgent need to take bold action.
A renewed emphasis on women veterans employment issues began in 2009, when the department saw increasing homelessness among women veterans. This led to ensuring resources address this issue, including the new Trauma-Informed Care for Women Veterans Experiencing Homelessness guide, as well as approximately $8.6 million in reintegration grants for homeless women veterans and veterans with children.
In September, 2012, then-Secretary Hilda Solis proposed a vision for the Women’s Veterans Initiative that would include a tiger team to jump-start efforts and set out on a mission to determine the distinct challenges for women veteran employment, identify the department services needed to close the gap and elevate women veterans issues among stakeholders and the public.
Over the past several months, the three of us have worked together to get the program up and running, representing the Labor Department’s Office of the Secretary, its Veterans’ Employment and Training Service and its Women’s Bureau. In addition to participating in numerous national and local forums to bring attention to the issue, we recently held two events at Labor Department headquarters to lay the foundation for this cutting-edge program. One session with women veterans who are employees of the department provided insight into their success strategies for employment in the federal workforce as well as what other resources/approaches would be useful.
The second event was a listening session with more than 100 advocates, veterans service organizations and community groups to better understand the employment challenges of the women they serve, and best practices they have found effective. Video from the event is available on the recently launched Women Veterans Initiative Web page.
There are currently 2.2 million women veterans and that number is expected to grow rapidly over the next few years. It is imperative that we work with sister federal agencies, state and local organizations, and stakeholders to stand up for women veterans. We have seen a tremendous amount of energy and support for the new initiative so far, and there are many more efforts underway. All veterans deserve good jobs, and we at the Labor Department will continue to honor their service by doing all we can to help them find meaningful careers.
Ariel Batungbacal is a White House Fellow in the Office of the Secretary of Labor. Jenny Erwin is a senior adviser to the department’s Veterans’ Employment and Training Service. Tonya Thompson is a program analyst in the department’s Women’s Bureau.