Successful entrepreneurs are hard-working, dedicated, disciplined, multi-skilled, and self-sufficient. They are problem solvers who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, and who stop at nothing until goals are reached. They are bold risk-takers, and they are passionate, strong-willed individuals who put the mission before the man. While all of these characteristics describe entrepreneurs, they also apply to many members of another very capable group: America’s young veterans of the military.
Despite boasting all of these attributes, today’s young vets are far more likely than average to be unemployed. While the overall unemployment rate is currently a bit over 8%, over 30% of the youngest American veterans (ages 18 to 24) were unemployed as of October, up from 18.4% the previous October. There are efforts to help veterans find employment when their days in the service end, but most focus on improving skills to find and apply for jobs (think: polishing resumes, rehearsing for job interviews). Considering how few traditional job openings are out there these days around the U.S., though, and considering the extraordinary abilities and character traits of this generation of veterans, an obvious question must be posed: Instead of helping veterans to seek jobs, why aren’t we helping vets to create them?
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Many veterans lack a college degree, the absence of which is a non-starter for tons of employers. So why are we asking veterans to work strictly within the system that is largely stacked against them? Why are we telling them to join the frustrated masses in the ailing job market? Perhaps, it would be wiser to encourage veterans to actively aid in the job market’s recovery—and lead the way in its redefinition.
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In these uncertain times, it is a faulty strategy—and a huge missed opportunity—to rely so heavily on promoting the “traditional job” of a fading yesteryear as the only mainstream fix to chronic veteran unemployment. America’s military veterans have a long and glorious history as entrepreneurs. According to one census report, three million vet-preneurs owned some part or all of a business as of 2002, and 811,000 of those businesses employed other people. Overall, 14.5% of those owning business interests in the census survey were veterans, while well below 10% of the overall U.S. population are veterans. Chris Hale, president of the National Veteran-Owned Business Association, claims that one in seven veterans owns a business, and that vets are twice as likely as non-vets to own businesses.
I certainly support the government measures that have been taken to increase veteran employment, such as the VOW to Hire Heroes Act, which offers tax credits to businesses that hire veterans. But for the most part, measures such as these have focused primarily on incentives to hire veterans, rather than supporting vets in efforts to hire themselves. In order to truly move the veteran unemployment needle, more innovative government and private sector solutions will be needed to put vets on the road to business ownership en masse.
One way to get started could be through the creation of something along the lines of a GI Franchise Bill. The GI Bill put millions of veterans through college, thereby giving them a leg up in the job market. Given today’s realities of high unemployment among recent college graduates, why not create a complementary option that would help veterans get into the franchising business? A GI Franchise Bill would consist of a franchise fund or franchise bank loan of sorts that allowed vets to invest monies into franchise ownership instead of collegiate education. No new spending would be needed; it would just be a reallocation of funds.
Instead of just giving tax credits to businesses that hire veterans, why not pass legislation such as the Help Veterans Own Franchises Act? The bill offers tax incentives to franchises that provide veterans with access to discounted business units, “work-to-own” business unit programs or private franchise loan funds. In certain instances, startup franchise fees might be waived altogether for veterans. All of these measures are meant to encourage companies to engage vets as potential franchise owners and assist them in financing franchise purchases.
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Efforts could also be taken to expand access to entrepreneurship education and mentorship to enlisted service members and veterans. “Graduation” from entrepreneurial training could be tied to funding initiatives such as the SBA Patriot Express Loan Program, offering veterans easier access to capital. Entrepreneurship and mentorship organizations such as SCORE and the Young Entrepreneur Council could be called upon to help prepare veterans for business ownership, easing the worries traditional lenders have with supporting vet-preneurship endeavors.
Bottom line: The unemployment rate for young veterans is simply unacceptable. In order for real change to happen, it’s time we treat these heroes as the courageous, intelligent people they are. We need to get real about the state of the job market, and get real about who veterans are and what they’re capable of—fast. Sprucing up resumes and attending job fairs are not solutions.
Collectively, it is our patriotic responsibility to help our nation’s servicemen and women thrive in today’s economy. By bolstering their natural strengths and skill sets with mentorship, legislative measures, and entrepreneurship education, we can help veterans build up the next generation of small businesses and franchises. They’ll create their own jobs, and most likely wind up hiring others. Helping veterans to start businesses isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the sensible thing to do.