From the federal government’s efforts to help veterans more effectively transition to civilian careers, through GI Bill benefits and assistance to veteran entrepreneurs, to finding ways to help homeless veterans, guest speakers before the National Veterans Employment & Education Commission covered a variety of topics on Aug. 26 at The American Legion National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.
Department of Labor. Keynote speaker James Rodriguez, the assistant secretary of the Department of Labor’s Veterans Employment and Training Service (DOL-VETS), noted that veterans outperform their nonveteran peers in every single facet of employment.
That’s a key statistic to share with civilian employers who may not realize how valuable veterans can be. But it’s also important for veterans to sell themselves; Rodriguez noted that women veterans don’t always self-identify, potentially costing themselves when applying for jobs.
“We have to find ways to continue to contribute after we take off that uniform, whether through volunteer service, whether it’s being advocates like you all here today, whether it’s just being a veteran and showing people we are the best of what America has to offer,” Rodriguez said.
“… We know that when you are not gainfully employed, when you are not fulfilling that need to do something beyond yourself, then that becomes a challenge. And so that’s why it’s important for us to ensure that these young men and women who have served their country dutifully have gainful employment,” he added.
Rodriguez said his top priority upon being confirmed to his position by Congress in May 2022 was to ensure that the transition process for servicemembers to civilian employment is correct.
“We know that’s still a struggle,” he said. “I know that’s a big priority for The American Legion as well.”
Preserving and strengthening strategic partnerships with VSOs like the Legion are another priority for Rodriguez. And it’s important to prepare those leaving the military for the long term.
“We’re going to be citizens a lot longer than we were on active duty. We’re going to be veterans a lot longer than we were on active duty,” Rodriguez said. “We want to make sure that people are prepared to do that, and when they stumble, we want to make sure that we have the resources in place to help them where we can, and that’s my entire focus.”
Education. “I wouldn’t be here without the GI Bill,” said Joseph Garcia, executive director of the Veterans Benefits Administration’s Education Service.
The GI Bill remains a crucial component of helping servicemembers achieve their educational goals upon leaving the military. And, Garcia said, it’s gotten easier to apply after the submission process for GI Bill benefits went automated online last August.
“Now, it’s a running start, because information comes over from (the Department of Defense) pre-populated (in the online forms),” Garcia said.
But Garcia noted that there’s still room to improve how those benefits can be used to sell the military as an early-career option. He asked commission members for their feedback on how to catch prospects earlier in the process.
Some of the suggestions included using high school counselors or JROTC programs; sharing information at the Boys State and Girls State programs sponsored by the Legion and American Legion Auxiliary, respectively; and even touting the life benefits of a military career.
Small business. While the dollars being offered to federal contractors are on the rise, the number of contractors submitting bids for federal contracts are on the decline, said Larry Stubblefield.
That provides an opportunity for veteran entrepreneurs, said Stubblefield, the acting associate administrator for the Office of Government Contracting and Business Development for the Small Business Administration (SBA).
“We’re working with the White House, we’re working with the Office of Management and Budget, we’re working with the department counsel, to just try and figure out how we can balance this to include making sure that our service-disabled veteran small businesses (are included),” Stubblefield said.
Stubblefield also said efforts are underway to streamline the certification process now that the Center for Verification and Evaluation of veteran-owned small businesses has moved from the Department of Veterans Affairs’ purview to the SBA.
Currently, there are different online certification processes between veteran-owned small business, women-owned small businesses, and others seeking certification for the federal bidding process. The SBA is aiming to have a single unified system in place by summer 2024.
Homelessness. The number of homeless veterans has decreased, but it’s still an issue that needs to be addressed.
Kathryn Monet, CEO of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, said The American Legion’s continued support is important in taking on the issue.
“One of the things I appreciate about all of you in the Legion Family is you consistently show up to help homeless veterans in a real way,” Monet said.
Monet noted that legislation passed during the COVID-19 pandemic made a notable difference in helping homeless veterans. But with many of those measures coming to an end, new legislation is necessary to continue the fight.
Among that proposed legislation is Senate Bill 1436, the Critical Health Access Resource and Grant Extension (CHARGE) Act. That measure has been supported by The American Legion.
Legislative update. Matthew Brennan, a policy analyst in the Veterans Employment and Education Division, updated the commission on some of the Legion’s legislative policies, including the GI Bill, homelessness and small business legislation.
More details on The American Legion’s legislative agenda are available here.