The day before President Obama gave his state of the union address, two American Legion officials met with White House representatives to advise them on ways to get returning veterans back into America's workforce.
"Our meeting focused on the president's initiative to create more jobs - specifically, for veterans," said Peter Gaytan, executive director of The American Legion in Washington. "The unemployment rate among veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan is much higher than our general population."
Tonight, Obama voiced his commitment to veterans very clearly when he told the nation that all its servicemembers "must know that they have our respect, our gratitude, and our full support. And just as they must have the resources they need in war, we all have a responsibility to support them when they come home. That is why we made the largest increase in investments for veterans in decades."
The president went on to say in his address that one in 10 Americans still cannot find work, and that "is why jobs must be our number one focus in 2010, and that is why I am calling for a new jobs bill tonight." Obama also proposed giving $30 billion to community banks so they can provide more credit to small businesses.
Clarence Hill, The American Legion's national commander, said the president's commitment to veterans is quite obvious, as well as his focus on adding more jobs to the economy. "We've got a lot of people out of work in America, and a lot of them are veterans. The president wants to put people back to work, and a lot of that work could be done most effectively by veterans - from processing disability claims at VA to bolstering port security along our coastlines.
"The American Legion is already cooperating with the White House, the Department of Labor, DoD and other agencies to work out specific strategies to hire more veterans. These include expanding GI Bill benefits to cover vocational training, and applying military training and experience to licensing and certification requirements in the private sector," Hill said.
According to Mark Walker, a Legion expert on veterans employment who accompanied Gaytan to the meeting, about 12 percent of all veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan are unemployed. "That rate runs higher among veterans in the 18 to 24-year-old range, because they're often less experienced and less educated. So our conversation focused on how to get jobs for veterans, including the disabled ones."
Gaytan and Walker met Jan. 26 with Matt Flavin, director of Obama's veterans and wounded warrior policy, as well as other stakeholders in the issue. They discussed how the White House could work with Congress to reduce obstacles for veterans seeking jobs, and reach out more effectively to employers who may want to hire veterans.
Specifically, the group talked about the licensing and certification issue for veterans returning to the civilian work force. While the federal government spends billions of dollars annually to train its military personnel, all that valuable training is usually not recognized in the civilian world. Veterans currently have no guarantee their active-duty qualifications will be accepted by a potential civilian employer.
"We're saying that's an unnecessary delay in employment, and a delay in career development," Walker said. "If DoD and the private sector could work out some kind of national test, so that once servicemembers pass it, they can go on to civilian employment without having to get recertified and spend more money on additional courses."
Another part of The American Legion's strategy to reduce veterans unemployment is to convince Congress to extend Post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits to those who opt for vocational training instead of a state college or university.
Gaytan said many veterans are caught in a double-bind once they hit the civilian job market: they have to take more courses to fulfill licensing/certification requirements, but the GI Bill won't pay for those courses. "So you've got all these veterans who can't tap into their education benefits and take the courses they need to get certified - even though they're already qualified because of all the training and experience they got in the military."
The American Legion is also attempting to bring the major players in licensing and certification issues to the same table and work out a comprehensive solution: DoD, VA, Dept. of Labor, state approving agencies, and the trade unions.
"We want all of these stake-holders to get together in the same room and figure out how servicemembers, from the day they raise their hands and take the oath to defend their country, can apply their military training and experience to a job in the civilian workforce that matches their qualifications," Gaytan said.
Last year, The American Legion sponsored or co-sponsored 100 job fairs for veterans across the country, according to its economic division director, Joe Sharpe. He said the Legion has another big job fair scheduled for Feb. 25 in Washington, and that plans are being made to sponsor "hiring fairs" for veterans in the near future.
"Job fairs are a great opportunity for veterans to network with a variety of businesses that seek their skills. But we want to go another step forward in the process with hiring fairs, and create a situation in which veterans will be interviewed for actual job openings," Sharpe said.
Another topic mentioned in Obama's state of the union address was small business, saying "We should start where most new jobs do -- in small businesses, companies that begin when an entrepreneur takes a chance on a dream, or a worker decides it's time she became her own boss."
Gaytan and Walker echoed Obama's sentiments when they spoke with White House representatives about small businesses owned by veterans - some of them disabled. While a presidential executive order has existed since 2004 that requires the federal government to give 3 percent of its contracting to small businesses owned by service-disabled veterans, Walker said that quota has never been met.
"If that requirement was met, that could cure a lot of unemployment ills in the veterans community. Because these small businesses owned by veterans usually have only a few employees until they get a federal contract. Then they have to hire more people, and veterans are often inclined to hire other veterans," he said.
Procurement officers are the ones who award federal contracts, Walker said, but many of them are simply not complying with the law. "It's easier for them to go with prime contractors they've already built a relationship with and, to be fair, procurement officers have to deal with a lot of complexities that relate to businesses owned by women and minorities.
"So it isn't that minorities and other groups don't deserve contracts, but veterans have served their country. And the reason why many of them are disabled is because they made that sacrifice for their country," Walker said. "So if anyone is going to have priority in federal contracting, it should be veterans."
Hill said The American Legion will keep pushing for changes in policy and law that will provide more job opportunities for veterans. "Our organization has passed several resolutions on this issue - from relaxing age restrictions in certain careers so that military retirees can pursue them, to calling for better veterans-preference compliance in hiring practices."
"We've been helping to get jobs for veterans for a very long time, starting with World War I veterans who were stuck with selling apples on street corners after surviving horrific battles in France," Hill said. "We owe our veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan the chance to make a decent living, and The American Legion is joining forces with the White House, Congress, DoD and other federal agencies to make sure they get that chance."