Shortly after his 17th birthday, Ali Malik asked his mother for permission to join the U.S. military. A New York City high school student, Malik had watched the twin towers implode from the top story of school, and wanted to show those behind the 9/11 attacks that “actions have consequences.”
After five years in the army — including stretches in Baghdad and Fallujah at the height of the Iraqi Civil War — Malik returned home in 2008, went to St. John’s College on the G.I. Bill, and tried to reenter civilian life.
But even with a college degree, Malik struggled to find a good job. "Most of the offers I could get were custodial work — like janitors' jobs, " he says. Like nearly 20 percent of veterans under 25, Malik found himself unemployed. To improve his prospects, Malik enrolled in a graduate program at NYU, interned at the State Department, and started networking with veterans employment organizations.
Malik will be done with classes soon, and is looking for work. Earlier this month, he drove 200 miles from New York to downtown Boston to attend the Recovering Warrior Employment conference. There, recruiters tried to convince Malik to sign up for a different sort of army altogether — UberMILITARY.
Launched this September by the international car service giant Uber, UberMILITARY aims to hire 50,000 vets — nearly a quarter of currently unemployed Iraq and Afghanistan War soldiers — in the next 18 months. (Though that number seems ambitious, the companyclaims to hire 50,000 drivers every month.)
To aid in its effort, Uber has enlisted respected armed forces commanders such as former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen, and former general Stanley A. McChrystal as volunteer ambassadors to the veteran community.
Gates has called the initiative an "unprecedented effort… to ensure that tens of thousands of our nation’s military members, veterans, and spouses have access to a unique entrepreneurial opportunity."
But veterans currently driving for Uber are concerned that military commanders are sending vets like Malik into low-wage and unstable employment.
As one army machine gunner turned Los Angeles Uber driver put it, "Uber promises a good job, but in reality it’s a very precarious way to make a living. I’m looking for a new job, and there’s no way I would recommend this life to other vets."
Though soldiers leave the service with leadership experience and technical skills that are supposed to prepare them for the civilian job market, for many the transition back is rough. "Nearly half of all service members will be unemployed at some point after leaving the military," says Ross Cohen, the Senior Director of Hiring our Heroes, an employment initiative sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The organization has pledged to help find 500,000 veterans jobs by the end of 2014.
Finding a job is hardest for veterans like Malik, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and returned home in the midst of an economic downturn. These "post-9/11" veterans are nearly twice as likely to be unemployed as the general population. Veterans under 25 are four times more likely to be out of work. And when these veterans do enter the workforce, they are more likely to be low-paid workers: more than 1 million veterans currently work near minimum-wage jobs.
The job fair Malik attended in October was sponsored by Hiring Our Heroes — the 800th such event the group has hosted since 2011. Hiring Our Heroes partners with local chambers of commerce, businesses, and government agencies to put on veteran job fairs and bring down unemployment numbers. "Everyone’s into supporting the troops," says Cohen. "But beyond that, we want to make the business case for hiring veterans. Not because its a charity, but because they make great employees."
Conferences like these offer companies a chance to tap into a labor pool of hundreds of thousands of skilled, hardworking, and eager candidates. And it works: at any given Hiring Our Heroes event, about 12 percent of attending veterans end up landing a job.
Hiring Our Heroes hosts a wide range of employers, hiring for a spectrum of jobs — from low-paid cashier positions at Walmart to defense contract work at Lockheed Martin. The goal is employment, whatever the job may be. "We focus on finding veterans jobs in the first place — that’s our mission," says Kim Morton, a staffer with Hiring Our Heroes who oversaw the Boston job conference.
Outside the job fair, about a dozen sharply-dressed veterans made small talk while waiting for the doors to open. Many had traveled from out of state. Some were as young as 22; others looked close to retirement. Morton from Hiring Our Heroes moved from veteran to veteran, reviewing resumes and coaching them on interview responses.
When the doors opened, dozens of the visibly jittery job-seekers wove their way through tables, shaking hands, swapping business cards, and accepting complimentary swag from would-be-employers like the Boston Fire Department, the US Postal Service, and Bank of America.
A few paces from an OfficeMax table, two young, fresh-faced Uber recruiters manned a small booth. In a room full of paunchy middle-aged HR managers and neatly dressed veterans, the duo stood out. Both wore plaid shirts, and one wore a backwards baseball cap. To each veteran who sat down, they offered a complimentary Uber baseball cap, and passed over an iPad with Uber’s application on the screen.
Before launching UberMILITARY, Uber ran a small case study in San Diego to measure veterans’ performance as drivers. The results spoke well for the veterans’ abilities: drivers with a military background drove more rides per hour and received higher ratings than civilian counterparts. Since the initiative was introduced, the company has dispatched recruiters to dozens of conferences, allowing Uber to solicit thousands of these above-average potential drivers. The initiative has been a tremendous success: over 1,000 military veterans signed up in the first two weeks alone.
Malik walked into the job fair wearing a slim grey suit and a calm expression. His resume was polished, and came armed with answers to common interview questions. One semester away from his master's degree in security studies, he felt confident and qualified.
But when he sat down with the Uber recruiters they didn’t look at his resume, or ask many questions. Instead, they launched into their pitch: Uber helps veterans become small business owners, they told him. All you need is a car. And if you don’t have one, Uber will help facilitate a loan.
Malik didn’t have a car, but told the recruiters he’d ask a cousin if he could borrow his. They swapped business cards. It was all over in just a few minutes.
Uber doesn’t consider its drivers employees, but "partners" — individual, small business owners working with, not for, the company. Becoming a small business owner, and the promise of the respectable income that comes with it, appeals to veterans. Many vets see their standard of living plummet when they leave the military. "While serving, soldiers are accustomed to housing, health-care, and benefits," says Steve Dunwoody, Program Manager with Vote Vets, a 200,000-member group that advocates for employment opportunities for returning veterans. "But when they return to civilian life, they are often forced to take low paying jobs."
At the Boston job fair, Uber recruiters gave Malik a flyer that promised $25 to $40 an hour driving an UberX. They threw in an added incentive: Uber would only take a 15 percent cut, down from the usual 25, until January 1st.
"Uber makes a concerted effort to be clear with partners on [fare] numbers," Arielle Goren, a spokeswoman for Uber, wrote me in an email. Estimated hourly wages can vary, she says, "based on factors such as what kind of car a partner drives, which service he/she drives with, how far away he/she lives from the area typically served, etc."
But take-home pay can be far less than drivers are led to expect. Since Uber drivers are not technically employees, they must pay out of pocket for gas, insurance, and car expenses — costs the company doesn’t account for.
Uber won’t release comprehensive statistics on driver income. But in May, the company claimed the median earnings for a full-time driver in New York was over $90,000 a year. Slate’s Alison Griswold recently did the math — factoring in expenses — and the numbers didn’t add up. One of the drivers she spoke with reported a take-home rate of $12 an hour. Griswold asked Uber to point her to a driver making the advertised median income, but the company declined.
The company also changes fares and compensation rates at will, and experiments with the drivers’ share of profits. In Los Angeles, Uber’s largest market, drivers for its UberX service earned $2.40 per mile and took home 95 percent of their fares last December. Now, they take in $1.10 and 80 percent of their fares.
These unpredictable working conditions don’t sit well with many drivers. There are currently attempts in Los Angeles, New York, and Seattle to unionize. Labor rights organizations have launched strikes and protests over what organizers call low-wages and precarious working conditions. In Boston and San Francisco, class action lawsuits against Uber were recently filed, alleging labor violations. Uber has tried and failed to get both suits dismissed.
Vets, like many Uber drivers, have been disappointed to find that the reality of driving for the company falls short of what’s advertised. Danielle Silva, who served for 10 years in the Navy, encourages veterans like Malik to think twice before enlisting in UberMILITARY. She joined Uber last May after seeing an ad that promised $30 to $40 an hour for drivers in Sacramento. Her car had recently been totaled by a drunk driver, and she planned to drive a few hours per week while her kids were in school in order to afford a new Toyota Camry. Two weeks after she started, Uber cut its rates by 20 percent in Sacramento. Now Silva has to work the late-night bar rush nearly every weekend to keep up with car payments.
"I don’t like to complain. I’d flip hamburgers to make ends meet and feed my kids," says Silva, a single mother of seven. "But this is not what I was promised, and I’m worried that other veterans are going to be misled."
Uber reserves the right to fire drivers for seemingly minor infractions. Drivers with average passenger ratings that fall below 4.6 out of 5 run the risk of being "deactivated." One driver recently lost their job afterretweeting a story that was unflattering to the company.
Silva worries about deactivation. Last month, out of fear of receiving a low rating, she held her tongue while three drunk male passengers sexually harassed her. "When I told them I had seven children, one of the guys said ‘your vagina must be wrecked,’" she recalls. Silva was the only woman in her navy unit, and she’s comfortable confronting men who get too crude. "But driving for Uber, this is my job, and if my rating gets too low, I can lose it," she says. That night, she laughed uncomfortably along with her drunk passengers.
The veterans at the Boston job fair I spoke with were unaware of the difficulties that some Uber drivers face. Malik left the conference interested in becoming a driver. A few days after he returned to New York, the Uber recruiter from the conference sent him a text: "Hey Ali, did you get a chance to talk to your cousin?"
Malik then began asking around about Uber. A friend’s brother who drove for Uber warned that because of the out-of-pocket expenses, drivers have to work long hours to bring in a reasonable income. "They didn’t mention that to me at the conference, though maybe they thought it was just common sense." In the end, Malik’s cousin wouldn’t lend his car, and Malik told the Uber recruiters no thanks. Uber still texts him every other day, prodding him to sign up.
The Boston job fair did produce some promising leads for Malik and he feels optimistic that when classes end in January, he’ll be able to land a job.
But not with Uber. Though he sees how the job could appeal to other veterans. "A lot of these guys come home and want to start working immediately," he says. That said, he feels veterans deserve more than what low-wage employers like Uber offer: "Soldiers who served honorably shouldn’t have to work for low wages, they should be able to find a proper career." Shortly after UberMILITARY launched last month, Robert Gates and Travis Kalanick appeared on CBS This Morning as part of a publicity tour. Sitting side-by-side in front of a stone fireplace, the CEO and former secretary of defense told CBS correspondent Anna Werner about Uber’s 50,000 veteran hiring goal.
Gates and Kalanick outlined how UberMILITARY was a win-win for veterans and the company alike. "Veteran drivers have a better work ethic, and are doing more trips than the average partner," Kalinick said. That means more money for veterans, and for Uber. Gates added that driving is perfect for veterans who don’t want a 9-5 job and just "want to be on their own."
That describes Matthew Hauke, a 16 year air force veteran in Milwaukee. He’s studying to be a commercial pilot, and Uber allows him to make extra cash on his own time. "I can work around school, and that’s really helpful for my schedule," he says. But, like other drivers, he says his earning don’t match what Uber promised — he responded to an ad touting $30-$40 per hour, but usually brings in less than half of that. As Uber continues to expand, UberMILITARY offers access to a steady stream of competent workers. Clearly that’s good for business. But hiring 50,000 veterans is also a good PR move for the embattled company. After a summer of negative coverage — including revelations from The Verge about Uber’s cut-throat recruitment practices — Uber is in need of an image reboot. Recruiting veterans doesn’t just make business sense, it also helps Uber position itself as a good corporate citizen. Hauke has a more cynical take of the program. UberMILITARY, he says, is "a big show of [the company’s] patriotism to win over the public."
Josh Cohen of Hiring Our Heroes believes that for unemployed vets, Uber can be part of the solution — that any job is better than no job at all. "Unemployment takes a psychological toll on veterans, who are used to being part of a productive team," he says. "Getting a job is important to keep up self esteem." But Steve Dunwoody of Vote Vets insists that while employing veterans is critical, not all jobs are created equal. "In this age of austerity, it’s already way too hard for veterans to get paid what they deserve," he says. He hopes veteran employment associations won’t just find soldiers jobs, but careers. "We need to think not just about the quantity of jobs," warns Dunwoody, "but the quality of jobs."
With Gates, Mullen, and McChrystal on board, UberMILITARY is on its way to reaching its 50,000 driver goal. But veteran Hauke hopes the military leaders think twice before asking vets to get behind the wheel. "I doubt [Gates, Mullen, and McChrystal] have any idea what its like to drive for Uber."