As our nation prepares to honor our military veterans on Veterans Day, it’s also important to acknowledge the contribution of veterans to our workforce. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there were 8,918,000 veterans in the labor force in 2020. Approximately one in every 19 employees (5.6%) is a military veteran.
Since 2000, the number of veterans in the workforce has declined by one-third, as veterans from World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War reached retirement age. Veterans also face higher unemployment rates than the general population, often due to difficulty readjusting to civilian life.
No discussion about veterans in the workforce would be complete without mentioning the significant impact of the G.I. Bill – formally known as the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944.
As World War II was winding down, America’s leaders realized that 16 million men and women who served in the armed forces would be unemployed upon their return, perhaps leading to economic instability and another depression. They developed legislation that set up programs to provide federal funding to help veterans pursue an education, get jobs, and buy homes.
Over the past 78 years, the G.I. Bill has helped tens of millions of veterans obtain postsecondary degrees, opening the door of higher education to the working class in a way that had never been done before. Unfortunately, we must also acknowledge that many minority veterans were excluded from utilizing the benefits.
The G.I. Bill has been extended and modified several times over the ensuing decades, most recently with the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act, also called the Forever G.I. Bill, enacted in 2017. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 900,000 veterans and dependents use the G.I. Bill annually. Estimates suggest that 40 percent of eligible veterans use the program, and I hope that more of my fellow veterans take advantage of these benefits.
Following my career in the U.S. Army, I used the G.I. Bill to earn a master’s degree from Western Carolina University and a doctorate from N.C. State University. Although I grew up in a family of academics, little did I know that a chance encounter would lay the foundation for my decision to utilize my benefits fully.
As the class leader of my officer basic cohort at Fort Bliss, Texas, I presided over a “Dining In,” a formal military mess (dinner) for members of a unit steeped in tradition and protocol. Our distinguished guest was General Omar Bradley, one of nine in U.S. history holding a five-star rank.
I had the honor of sitting next to General Bradley, and we spoke about several topics, including leadership, service to the country, and reflections on his commands during World War II. He also discussed his roles as the first Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of the Veterans Administration. Under his direction, the newly formed V.A. developed educational benefits for veterans, including the G.I. Bill.
I asked General Bradley which benefits he felt were most impactful for veterans. He shared that while the V.A. was most recognized for providing medical care and assistance to service members and their families, the G.I. Bill has likely delivered the greatest breadth of positive impact on post-service careers and livelihoods for veterans.
Nearly 200,000 active-duty service members leave the military annually. Although many retire after a long military career, the most common exit point is after the first term. A typical enlisted service member makes this transition at around age 23 and without a four-year college degree. The G.I. Bill can be particularly impactful for this group, as military education benefits have historically improved long-term outcomes for veterans.
North Carolina is home to more than 800,000 veterans. We can continue to honor them by providing the necessary resources and networks to ensure that they and their families enjoy the economic benefits of a good education, good-paying jobs, and a secure retirement.
Ben Coulter, Ed.D., is chancellor of WGU North Carolina, a state affiliate of accredited online nonprofit Western Governors University, and Southeast Regional director for the university.