Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Federal legislation will make available an additional two years of vocational rehabilitation to try to restore injured, disabled vets to the level of work or skills they had prior to being hurt

From The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In the picture, Jamal Simmons sets up his video equipment while doing contract work with Sunseeker Media in Atlanta. He was discharged from the U.S. Navy and had a hard time finding work.

Ronquel Robinson was discharged from the U.S. Army in early 2008 and headed to Atlanta to learn video production.

The newly minted veteran had no idea what awaited after he completed two years of classes recession, a slow job market and double-digit unemployment.

“I should've had an easy transition, because I worked in human resources and could always fall back on that,” Robinson said. “But I didn’t even get calls back on that.”

So he signed up for the Army Reserves. At least that earned him $400 a month.

Robinson is one of thousands of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan struggling to find work, the reason U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., introduced the Hiring Heroes Act last month.

“Bottom line, we’ve got too many homeless vets and a high percentage of veterans who are unemployed or unemployable,” Bishop said.

The legislation will provide all veterans leaving service with individualized career assessment, matching up military personnel skills with civilian occupations, as part of the Defense Department’s transition assistance program.

The bill will make available an additional two years of vocational rehabilitation -- restoring injured or disabled vets to the level of work or skills they had prior to being hurt -- and employment services once federal and state financial assistance has been exhausted. The bill will also create a program giving vets paid work experience with civilian employers and contractors.

“We should make sure they have every opportunity,” said Bishop, who is a member of the House Committee on Veteran Affairs.

The bill, H.R. 1941, and an accompanying Senate bill sponsored by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., are both currently being reviewed in respective committees.

The legislation comes at a time when the employment rate for returning service members ages 20 to 24 stands at 27 percent, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

The Department of Veteran Affairs already has transitional programs -- VetSuccess.com, which is part of the VA's Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment office -- that provides similar services to outgoing servicemen and women, but is federally mandated to end after fiscal year 2012. Bishop's bill would extend those services through 2014 and expand them, while streamlining some federal laws that prohibit military personnel from searching for work until they've been discharged. The measure would require the VA to work in concert with the Department of Labor and Department of Defense to help departing personnel find work.

Ruth Fanning, director of the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment office, declined Friday to comment on the pending legislation, but said no effort was too much to help the nation's veterans.

"We have had lots of success getting vets into careers, but I'm not going to be happy until we get every vet employed," Fanning said, offering her support to Bishop's bill. "I'm always going to be for anything that helps our vets."

State Labor Commissioner Mark Butler said more than 72,000 vets have come through his department’s offices in the past year. Their inquiries ranged from applying for benefits, looking for work or seeking career counseling. Some just wanted help with resume writing and interviewing skills.

Butler has particular interest in helping combat personnel because his son did two tours in Iraq with the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division.

“Especially if they’re on the front line, they’ve spent a lot of time training for that job and it does not always translate to civilian life,” said Butler, whose son eventually found work in the insurance industry. “He had to compete with a lot of people who had more specialized skills.”

The bill also gives consideration to severely wounded veterans, continuing a program that offers rehabilitation and vocational benefits.

“I think it’s phenomenal if it happens,” said Josh Musser, a former Marine from Lawrenceville.

Musser, an artillery specialist, returned from Iraq with a severe brain injury, hearing loss in his left ear and post-traumatic stress disorder. He said he received little help from the military in finding or keeping a civilian job.

“You give me all this training to go over there and kill and when I come home, you’re out of my life. Like, ‘Not my problem,’” he said.

The new bill promises to follow up with vets to check on job status and begin a study on how military jobs best align with civilian occupations.

Jamal Simmons, 31, a U.S. Navy veteran who also studied video production after his discharge, started a video company with Robinson after the two finished their studies. But while Robinson chose reserve status to help pay bills, Simmons has continued to take part-time contract work while looking for a permanent job.

Simmons, who was the equivalent of an air traffic controller while enlisted, doesn’t think the Hiring Heroes bill will make much of a difference.

“At least not for me,” he said. “I’m doing the exact opposite of what I did in the military.”

Still, he acknowledged that when he was discharged in 2005, he didn’t see much structure to guide veterans to jobs.

“No one was telling you, ‘Here’s what you should do,’” he said. “But back then, if you wanted to work, you could find something.”

Butler, the state labor commissioner, said the government has an obligation to help veterans train for jobs.

“We owe it to them, if there is a skills gap, to help them bridge that gap,” he said.

Bishop’s bill has already drawn 43 co-sponsors from both sides of the political aisle. It has yet to be priced by the Congressional Budget Office.

“It’s a win-win for everybody,” he said. “They pay the price for the freedom that we enjoy and we owe them a proper and high-quality transition back into civilian life.”