The jobless rate for veterans who were in service following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was 12.1 percent last year, up from 11.5 percent in 2010, the department's data show. Among all non-veterans, 8.7 percent were jobless last year, down from 9.4 percent in 2010.
"This is a national security issue," Kevin Schmiegel, vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's veterans employment program, said in an interview. "What happens to the all-volunteer force? We're not going to be able to recruit enough people to serve in the military if we don't do something now."
The chamber, the largest U.S. business lobbying group, created a "Hiring Our Heroes" campaign last year, which has held more than 100 job fairs in at least 45 states and the District of Columbia. The chamber plans to hold 400 fairs by 2014.
Even with such efforts, concern has grown that post-Sept. 11 veterans will continue to struggle with unemployment, particularly as the Pentagon prepares to bring more troops home from Afghanistan and to shed 123,900 troops by fiscal 2017.
"This is a problem that I worry about a great deal," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said at a Feb. 14 hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "And frankly, it's one of the risks involved as we reduce the budget by this level, is how to ensure that we take care of those that are returning."
The report, issued a day after President Barack Obama declared "A National Day of Honor" to commemorate the return of U.S. forces from Iraq, underscores the importance of "initiatives to increase employment among veterans," Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said in a statement.
Legislation signed last year by Obama provides tax credits of as much as $5,600 for employers who hire a veteran who has been unemployed more than six months. The credit rises to as much as $9,600 for hiring a disabled veteran.
Obama also is seeking $1 billion over five years to develop a Veterans Job Corps that would hire as many as 20,000 veterans to work on conservation projects.
Among all veterans, including those who served before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the jobless rate dropped slightly to 8.3 percent last year from 8.7 percent in 2010.
The figures compiled by the Labor Department were obtained from the Current Population Survey, a monthly sample survey of about 60,000 households that provide employment information in the U.S.