If NC wants to be the best state for veterans, we have a ways to go

North Carolina leaders in both parties say they want to make our state first in the country for supporting military veterans.

For a state with the fourth-largest active duty military presence nationally at 778,000 and the eighth-largest veteran population at over 683,000, this is a worthy goal.

We have a ways to go. According to a recent study by Wallethub, North Carolina currently ranks 21st in the country for veterans, lagging significantly behind our immediate neighbors Virginia and South Carolina (which rank second and fifth respectively).

The ranking is based on 27 metrics clustered into three categories: economic environment, quality of life, and access to health care.

On our economic environment, we rank a dismal 31st. Employment for veterans is a significant problem. In North Carolina, 32,000 veterans are unemployed, and 48,000 have income below the poverty level, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Seven percent of veterans are homeless (12 percent of the of the state’s adult homeless population).

A major negative factor in the rankings is that veteran pensions are taxed in North Carolina. (Though the N.C. Senate tried to change this in the most recent budget session, the legislation failed to pass in the House.)

More positively, North Carolina ranks 12th in quality of life—reflecting our weather and the relatively low cost of living—and clearly many veterans choose to stay in North Carolina. But we rank much lower on health care for veterans. Access to health care is critical since 22 percent of veterans in North Carolina have a service-related disability.

With North Carolina’s excellent health-care system, one would think we would do well, but we ranked only 25th nationally, dragged down by the low number and quality of VA hospitals and veteran treatment centers — especially in rural areas. Additionally, 30,000 veterans and 23,000 spouses and children of veterans were uninsured as of 2017, according to the Budget and Tax Center.

There are a number of promising efforts underway to improve matters for veterans, particularly to increase employment opportunities.

The N.C. Department of Commerce just launched the NCWorks Veterans Portal (veterans.networks.gov) to help veterans connect more efficiently to jobs that match their previous experiences.

North Carolina is the third state in the country to participate in CyberVetsUSA, an effort to help veterans prepare for jobs in the booming cyber-security industry. A collaboration between industry partners such as Cisco, Amazon Web Services, and NetApp and the non-profit Onward to Opportunity, this free skills-to-jobs program prepares veterans to take their “serve and protect” background and apply it to jobs in fields like cybersecurity operations and network security that pay an average of over $91,000.

Cybersecurity is already one of the top 10 tech employment sectors nationally. Tech security firm Symantec predicts demand for cybersecurity jobs to swell to 6 million this year with 1.5 million job openings. This is a massive economic opportunity for North Carolina and our veterans.

Another significant economic growth opportunity is helping veterans launch their own businesses, which 25 percent of transitioning service members want to do. Already there are over 86,000 veteran-owned businesses in North Carolina – 10 percent of all businesses in the state.

BunkerLabs, a national non-profit organization with a presence in the Triangle, is trying to boost this number. Through the mantra of “inspire, equip, and connect,” it helps veterans start and scale companies by providing services ranging from mentoring and training to capital and co-working spaces.

These are all positive steps, but there is a long way to go. It’s one thing to say we want to be the number one state for veterans. It’s another to make it a reality.

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Cities. Frederick Mayer is a professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. They can be reached at authors@forwardcities.org.