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Survey finds many LA veterans unemployed or earning poverty wages

The scene at a job fair for veterans earlier this year in Washington, D.C.

A new wide-ranging report on U.S. military veterans in Los Angeles has found that a quarter of veterans are unemployed, and among those with jobs, many work for meager wages.

“Nearly a quarter are earning an annual income at or below the U.S. poverty level,” said the author of the report, USC Professor Carl Castro. “That was a surprising finding. I didn’t expect that.”

Los Angeles County has about 325,000 veterans, more than anywhere else in the state. And California has about 1.8 million veterans, more than any other state.

USC’s Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families conducted the survey of 1,356 veterans living in Los Angeles County. It asked them about  jobs, housing, health and getting assistance.

Eight in 10 reported that they did not have a job when they returned to civilian life.

Some private companies have stepped in to redress the problem.

The Walt Disney Co. said that it has hired more than 4,000 veterans through its Heroes Work Here program, well over the 1,000 goal set in March 2012, when the program launched. 

U.S. Army veteran Kevin Preston, who runs the initiative, told KPCC that the company has hired veterans at all levels, from entry to executive. "It’s like the military," Preston said. "We have a job for almost everything at Disney. Everything from journalism and production to park operations to business operations, so it’s a very very broad swath."

Also in early 2012, a group called Veterans in Film and Television began holding monthly meetings to help veterans network their way into production jobs. Board member Tim Norman said that the meetings now attract more managers from studios and have changed the way the managers see veteran applicants.

"They’re not just wounded warriors," Norman said. "They’re not just, you know, heroes. We’re all probably right in the middle, and I think that’s gone a long way in normalizing the perception of veterans and increasing hiring."

Norman, a Gulf War veteran himself, is also a director of Human Resources at Dreamworks Animation and said that he has hired six veterans in the last year.

But Anthony Hassan, who heads USC’s Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families, said more needs to be done. "These efforts to help veterans with jobs are great, but there has to be more done on the front end before they leave the military."

Ideally, Hassan said, companies such as DreamWorks and Disney would have access to military bases to help train future veterans in new skill sets. 

USC's Castro, who served in the army for 33 years, said the reality of the tight labor market runs counter to what service members hear when they are on active duty.

“Many constantly heard how employers would love to have a veteran working for them, how easily and well their skills would transition from the military to civilian employment,” Castro said. “So service members leaving the military not only expect to find a job fairly easily, they also expect to find a well-paying job because that’s what they are hearing while they are on active duty.”

Yet more than a third of veterans surveyed reported having had financial problems in the past year.

Among the findings:

  • Three-fourths of unemployed veterans report they are not getting assistance in finding a job.
  • More than two-thirds of veterans surveyed reported difficulty in adjusting to civilian life and not knowing where to go or whom to contact to get help.
  • At least 40 percent of those surveyed reported leaving the military with no permanent housing or living arrangements in place.
  • Five in 10 veterans reported having a significant physical or mental health issue but not receiving care for it.
  • Nearly 60 percent of pre-9/11 female veterans and nearly 38 percent of post-9/11 female vets reported having been the victims of sexual assault.

USC also surveyed veterans living in Orange County. Those findings are due out in a report in a few weeks.