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WASHINGTON — The number of young veterans receiving unemployment payments dropped dramatically last year, hitting its lowest levels since 2001.

According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics survey, veterans between 20 and 24 years old posted a 10.4 percent unemployment rate in 2006, down from 15.6 percent in 2005. That’s the lowest rate among that former military age group in five years.

Charles Ciccolella, assistant secretary of labor for Veterans’ Employment and Training, said a surge in the number of guardsmen and reservists entering active duty in 2003-2004 played a role in those higher 2004-2005 numbers. Researchers saw similar spikes after the first Gulf War, when those groups were also activated.

But Ciccolella said he has also seen encouraging signs too that employers are taking notice of the skills that young former servicemembers bring to the work force.

“It’s not just that they’re going to show up for work, pass a drug test,” he said. “They bring leadership skills too. They’re highly skilled and qualified when they go into the service, and they’re even more so when they come out.”

Department of Labor officials have raised concerns in recent years about employment trends among the country’s youngest veterans. Civilians of comparable ages posted an 8.1 percent unemployment rate in 2006.

But Ciccolella noted that a University of Chicago study released last week confirmed that often young veterans take time looking for a job, and use unemployment funds to hold them over until they find a good fit.

“They may be using unemployment compensation to take their time to adjust and find that job,” he said.

The 10.4 percent unemployment rate equates to just under 30,000 veterans.

The unemployment rate for all veterans in 2006 was 3.8 percent, below the general population figure of 4.1 percent. The veteran population has posted a lower unemployment rate than the nonveteran population each of the last 20 years.

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