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Number of veterans getting federal jobs is at a 5-year high

Kristen Cargill, a representative from Northwestern Mutual Financial Network, left, speaks with New York Army Guard soldier 1st Lt. John Scott, right, at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's "Hiring Our Heroes" job fair on Oct. 16, 2013 .

RAYMOND DRUMSTA/U.S. ARMY

By LISA REIN | The Washington Post | Published: September 4, 2015

The share of federal jobs going to veterans is at its highest level in five years, new statistics show, with former service members making up almost half of full-time hires in the past fiscal year.

In government, 1 worker in 3 is now a veteran, proof that the White House's six-year push to give those who served in the military a leg up for federal jobs is working.

The bad news is that once veterans get into government, they don't stay long. They're more likely than non-veterans to leave their jobs within two years, the Office of Personnel Management reports, even if they have transferred from other federal agencies.

The Small Business Administration had the most trouble keeping veterans in fiscal 2014, with just 62 percent staying two years or more, compared with 88 percent of non-veterans. Former service members left the Commerce Department at similar rates, with 68 percent staying two years or more, compared with 82 percent for non-veterans.

Even the Department of Veterans Affairs, traditionally a draw for former troops, lost a little more than a quarter of its veterans within two years, compared with 20 percent of its non-veterans.

The only agencies that kept more veterans than non-veterans were the Defense and State departments, the report released last month shows.

The growing presence in government of male and female veterans is the most visible federal effort to reward military service since the draft ended in the 1970s. Starting in 2009, President Barack Obama pushed agencies to increase hiring of veterans, in response to the bleak employment prospects that many service members faced after returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The initiative has fueled tensions in federal offices, though, as longtime civil servants and former troops on the other side of the cubicle question others' competence and qualifications.

Last year, 47.4 percent of new hires for full-time jobs were veterans, an increase of 1.3 percentage points over fiscal 2013.

This is the first time that the administration has measured how well agencies retain veterans. Senior leaders will be rated at the end of the fiscal year on how well they closed the gap between veterans and non-veterans who leave.

"Federal agencies hire them, but where they're placed and into what job is not always the best fit," said Joseph Sharpe, director of veterans' employment and education for the American Legion. "These retention rates are huge issues for us."

He noted that many veterans drop out of college and quit jobs in the private sector, too. At a Legion conference on veterans employment in Baltimore this weekend, hiring managers from the OPM and the departments of Energy, Transportation, Labor, Defense and Treasury are scheduled to address the issue, Sharpe said.

Hakeem Basheerud-Deen, the OPM director of veterans services, said by e-mail: "New-hire retention rates vary between agencies. Each agency has its own culture and mission, so it's difficult to explain the differences in their new hire retention rates."

The employment data offers a detailed profile of former troops who went to work for the government.

Men made up 81 percent of veterans hired, but just 45 percent of non-veterans. Forty percent of veterans had college degrees or higher education, compared with 54.7 percent of non-veterans. Just 10 percent of veterans were hired to agencies in the Washington region, while 17.5 percent of non-veterans ended up in the area.

Pay and the types of jobs also differed. Almost twice as many veterans as non-veterans were hired into blue-collar jobs. Veterans hold the edge on administrative jobs, while non-veterans were hired into more professional posts.

Veterans who have joined the government find that it's too bureaucratic. They bristle at the resentment they feel from colleagues who know they went to the head of the hiring queue. They acknowledge that they don't always fit in: Just below the surface, deep culture clashes in their offices simmer.

These are some of the issues at the root of why veterans don't stay long in federal jobs, say former troops still working in government and those who have quit.

"Some veterans will say, 'I go to staff meetings with a pen and paper, and I'm all about the mission,' " said Walter Elmore, a drill instructor during the Vietnam War who set up an affinity group for veterans at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. "Things don't move that quickly in government. There's a culture here that's very different from the culture our veterans are used to dealing with."

Elmore said that veterans suffer from a widespread perception that they aren't qualified for the jobs they receive, because they benefit from preferential hiring for civil service jobs.

"People look at us in a very hostile way," he said. "It's a little bit of 'Who do they think they are?' When you come into a place and you feel like you don't fit, you say, it's a good job, but I want a certain peace of mind.' "

Washington Post staff writer Emily Wax-Thibodeaux contributed to this report.

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