WASHINGTON — One in five young male veterans were unemployed in the first three months of 2005, nearly double the rate among comparable civilians, according to federal labor statistics.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson called the numbers “troubling” and called for more efforts to find jobs for the young men. But Department of Labor officials said they don’t see a trend towards larger employment problems for those former troops.

“We see no trend toward a worse gap, just an anomaly caused by looking at such a short time span as a quarter or month,” said Frederico Juarbe Jr., assistant secretary for veterans employment. “We find it most helpful to look at yearly totals.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate among 20- to 24-year-old male veterans for the first quarter of 2005 was 20.4 percent. About 86,000 servicemembers in that age group received military separations in 2004.

Among civilian men of the same age, the unemployment rate was 11 percent.

In 2004, the gap between those groups was much smaller. Civilian men in that bracket saw a 9.4 percent unemployment rate, while the young veterans posted a 13.6 percent rate.

The unemployment rate for all veterans 20 and over last year was 4.6 percent, lower than the 5 percent rate for the general population.

Juarbe said often the younger veterans are either looking for their first nonmilitary job or waiting to enroll in higher education, which could explain the higher unemployment numbers.

But Nicholson, in a speech before military support groups Wednesday, said he is concerned about the young men’s lower employment rates.

“When you think about it, these young people are prime employees,” he said. “They’ve raised their hand, they’ve volunteered, they’ve gone though basic training and probably specialty training, they went off and served their time and were honorable discharged, and now one in five of them are unemployed.”

Phil Budahn, spokesman for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said the Labor Department’s explanations could offer some clues to the issue but don’t dismiss the problem.

“Even if it’s just a seasonal slide, we’re still talking about [an increase] that’s affecting the lives of these men,” he said.

“It makes little sense that these veterans should have a higher percentage at all. We owe them something, and the secretary sees evidence that they’re not getting the help they need.”

Nicholson said he is working with major trade associations to develop new vocational programs, and so far has received positive responses from the business community. He has also encouraged federal agencies to place extra emphasis on young veterans when hiring.

The Department of Labor operates several jobs programs for veterans including the Career One Stop System, which includes a series of state grants and online resources to match businesses and potential employees.

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