Congress moving forward with veterans jobs initiatives

By LEO SHANE III | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 9, 2011

WASHINGTON — The ambitious jobs plan outlined by the president Thursday night may be a tough sell in Congress, but lawmakers appear on the verge of advancing at least one piece of unemployment legislation in the near future: A new veterans jobs bill.

Just hours before the speech, members of the House Veterans Affairs committee approved a measure offering new training programs to veterans looking for jobs and tax incentives to companies that hire them.

Senate leaders have a similar measure under consideration, and members of both parties say they expect to find compromise on the issue in coming weeks, possibly before Veterans Day in November.

Many of the provisions are geared toward younger veterans and those just leaving the service, because of the spike in joblessness in that group.

Labor officials announced last week that the unemployment rate among “Gulf War II era” veterans – those who have served during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars -- fell to 9.8 percent in August, the first time this year that figure has been below 10 percent. But that’s still nearly 200,000 young veterans looking for work.

Overall, veterans have fared better in the job market than most civilians. The unemployment rate among all former military personnel fell to 7.7 percent last month, well below the 9.1 national rate. But veterans groups note that even at that level, the figures translate into almost 900,000 unemployed veterans, frustrated that their public service isn’t helping them in the private sector.

Bill sponsor Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs committee, said before Thursday’s vote that push for action now is obvious: “A million veterans out of work is not acceptable.”

Both Miller’s plan and the Senate measure, sponsored by Senate Veterans Affairs chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., would require all troops leaving the service to attend improved transition assistance program courses, in an effort to better prepare them for job interviews and civilian life.

Currently, only the Marine Corps makes that program mandatory. Defense officials say that roughly one-third of troops leaving the ranks skip the classes.

Murray’s proposal would create new direct federal hiring authorities designed to seamlessly pull highly skilled veterans into government jobs. It would also expand grant programs for outside charities offering job training to veterans and provide two years of vocational rehabilitation funding to veterans who have exhausted other federal benefits.

Miller’s plan includes similar provisions for younger veterans, but also includes a job training program for veterans 35 and older, complete with a living stipend. It also calls for better aligning licensing and certification standards among the states, in an effort to make it easier for veterans to quickly transfer their military skills into civilian jobs.

Miller said Thursday that he prefers initiatives to encourage private sector hiring of veterans over expansion of federal programs -- “Government creating government jobs is not what we need to do,” he quipped -- but officials from both chambers said they believe the two bills are close enough to find a compromise solution.

Veterans groups have backed both proposals, calling them critical steps to help returning heroes find work.

President Barack Obama barely mentioned veterans in his Thursday jobs speech, but last month he outlined a host of veterans job initiatives in response to the unemployment rate.

The White House reiterated several of those Friday morning, including a slate of new tax breaks for companies who hire veterans. Business owners could receive between $2,400 and $9,600 per new veteran employee, based on their disability status and how long they’ve been looking for a job.

Congress would have to approve the tax breaks, which are expected to total more than $120 million. But White House officials have said the move could create about 25,000 new jobs for veterans, an investment well worth the cost.

Defense, veterans and labor officials are also undergoing a series of reviews to find jobs and job training programs for troops leaving the service, and military officials are exploring the idea of a “reverse boot camp” for all servicemembers, possibly replacing the transition assistance program courses. Details of that plan aren’t expected to be made public until the end of the year, however.

On Friday, veterans advocates praised the focus of lawmakers and the president on veteran unemployment, but warned that the Capitol Hill proposals are just one step in solving the problem.

“We have got to convince the private sector to recognize the full value of military service,” American Legion National Commander Fang Wong said in a statement. “Taxpayers invest a lot of money in their training. Such a huge investment must not be wasted. Hiring veterans is one of the best ways to honor their service.”

Ryan Gallucci, legislative deputy director for the Veterans of Foriegn Wars, said many of the job training proposals under consideration would take time to translate into jobs, but the tax credits could provide an instant boost to employers and unemployed veterans.

“That’s something that small businesses can see right away, and get a quick benefit from,” he said. “So that could provide a quicker turn-around.”

He also noted that “Congress can’t create private industry jobs, but they can create a better environment for those jobs to grow.” The proposals under consideration, he said, do just that.


Twitter: @LeoShane