Nearly 75 representatives from government, the private sector and veterans service organizations packed the conference room at The American Legion's office in Washington on Jan. 11 to discuss the unemployment crisis among young military veterans.
Specifically, members of Washington-based VET-Force gathered to examine the state of veteran-owned small business enterprises, and how they're faring in securing government contracts as mandated by Congress. The American Legion hosts the meetings several times a year.
"Just last week, it was announced that the jobless rate among young veterans is nearly 2 percent higher than the national average, even in the midst of what some observers view as an economic recovery," said Joe Sharpe, director of the Legion's Economic Division. "That makes our efforts, as well as our fellow veteran advocates in organizations like VET-Force, more important than ever."
VET-Force was organized in early 1999 to advocate for the development and passage of Public Law 106-50, the Veterans' Entrepreneurship and Small Business Development Act of 1999, wherein Congress recognized the United States must provide additional assistance to veterans (particularly service-disabled veterans) with creating and expanding their own small businesses. Members include small business office executives from several government agencies. Among them was Teresa Lewis, director of the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Small & Disadvantaged Business Utilization (OSDBU) and a 20-year Air Force veteran and a longtime member of The American Legion Small Business Task Force.
"We exceeded our goal this year," she announced, meaning that her office has awarded at least 3 percent of its outsourced contracts – primarily for IT services – to veteran-owned small business firms. Not all government agencies and departments can make the same claim – a point that dominated the meeting's discussion. Each federal department (Labor, Transportation, Treasury, Interior, etc.) is required by law to maintain an OSDBU to ensure that small businesses have an opportunity to compete and be selected for a fair of amount of that agency's prime and subcontracting opportunities.
The American Legion is at the forefront of the struggle to gain full employment for job-eligible military veterans. The Legion is also a leading promoter of veteran-owned small businesses. Besides maintaining its own Small Business Task Force, as mentioned previously, the Legion sponsors numerous "how-to" workshops (free of charge) for entrepreneurial veterans wishing to establish their own businesses and secure government contracts.
The Legion's leadership in veterans employment was acknowledged by VET-Force meeting chair Rick Weidman, the Vietnam Veterans of America's executive director for policy & government affairs. At meeting's end, Weidman thanked the Legion for its hospitality in hosting the meeting, and lauded it for "leading the way."
"There is no greater concern for us than the welfare of veterans and their families," Sharpe said, "and self-sufficiency – such as successful small business ownership – helps assure a decent and deserving lifestyle for them. The Legion will do whatever we can to encourage and nurture that."