WASHINGTON — The White House wants $6 billion next year for a new veterans job corps initiative to employ thousands of former servicemembers as police officers, firefighters and park rangers.
The program, highlighted in President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address last month, will launch in the next few weeks but will require cooperation from Congress to move forward in coming years. That could be a tough sell for lawmakers already looking for ways to avoid a looming $500 billion cut in defense spending over the next decade.
The plan also comes as the Defense Department prepares to shed more than 100,000 troops over the next few years, part of cost-saving measures tied to the end of the war in Iraq and the drawdown of forces from Afghanistan.
In remarks at a Virginia fire station on Friday, Obama said veterans’ skills and experience make them potential employees that “every business should be competing to attract,” and reliable workers for local communities.
“They’ve already risked their lives defending America,” he told a crowd of veterans and public safety officers. “They should have the opportunity to rebuild America. We’ve got roads and bridges in and around our national parks in need of repair. Let’s fix them.”
He also pushed Congress to fund his proposals, saying that “now is not the time for self-inflicted wounds to our economy.”
The police and firefighter jobs will come through a pair of community hiring grant programs designed to boost public safety employee numbers. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said nearly $500 million will be made available this year for departments that give hiring preference to post-Sept. 11 veterans, recognizing the "debt of gratitude" all Americans owe to those servicemembers.
“We want to encourage departments around the country to take advantage of the training, skills, dedication, discipline and competence that our veterans have gained through their selfless military service,” Shinseki said.
The White House wants to extend those veterans-preference grants through another $4 billion in the Community Oriented Policing Services grant program for fiscal 2013 and another $1 billion in the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grants, but those funds will have to survive the annual congressional budget process.
Obama also will request another $1 billion for the Department of Interior to employ about 20,000 veterans over the next five years — mostly recently separated servicemembers, but also some older-era veterans as well — in nationwide conservation programs. That will include work as park rangers and visitor guides at national parklands, preservation specialists at historic sites, outreach workers at inner-city parks programs, and maintenance and construction contractors for public land improvements.
Shinseki said the jobs corps initiative also will include an expansion of entrepreneurship training opportunities for active-duty troops and veterans, including a voluntary two-day seminar on small business start-ups for separating servicemembers through the services’ transition assistance programs.
As part of that effort, the Small Business Administration will offer an eight-week online training program teaching “the fundamentals of small business ownership” to 10,000 veterans annually, along with other entrepreneurial training tools for military spouses and veterans.
The new effort comes after a host of policy updates and new training programs by the White House in recent months aimed at finding post-military career opportunities for veterans. Administration officials said they are confident that lawmakers will support the efforts and make the necessary funding available this year.
Last year, Congress approved bipartisan legislation providing new training programs for unemployed veterans and tax credits for companies that hire them. But that agreement took most of the year to reach, despite Democrats’ and Republicans’ public insistence that each side was committed to helping veterans find jobs.