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By Rick Maze – Staff writer – Marine Corps News
Posted : Wednesday Oct 12, 2011 21:26:34 EDT
 The House of Representatives on Wednesday night overwhelmingly passed a veterans’ employment bill that hopes to put 400,000 or more veterans to work in the next two years.

If that happens, the jobless rate for veterans would drop from about 8.1 percent — a rate 1 percentage point less than the national unemployment rate — to 5 percent or lower.

Called the Veterans Opportunity to Work Act, or VOW Act, the bill would not create jobs. Instead, it would:

• Tweak programs helping current service members prepared for post-service life.

• Create a job retraining program for up to 100,000 veterans between the ages of 35 and 60 who have been unemployed for 26 weeks or longer.

• Attempts to get states to relax or modify licensing and credentialing rules so that people who learned a marketable skill in the military can get jobs in the private sector without extensive retraining.

Medics and truck drivers are examples of skills learned by people in the military that do not automatically lead to civilian employment, because of licensing rules vary by state and jurisdiction.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the House Veterans Affairs Committee chairman and chief sponsor of bill HR 2433, said the idea is to make veterans — especially those who have been unemployed for long periods and have exhausted GI Bill education benefits — better able to qualify for available jobs.

“We are creating a more educated veterans workforce,” Miller said, adding: “We must do everything we can … to get our veterans back to work.”

The bill passed 418-6 vote, a rare sign of bipartisanship in a testy legislation session.

It will take more bipartisan spirit to get the measure enacted into law, however. The Senate has been sitting since June on its own veterans employment bill, the Hiring Heroes Act, which has significant differences that would have to be worked out before a final bill passes. Miller and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairwoman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, both pledged Wednesday to try to get a bill quickly passed.

The goal has been for veterans employment legislation to be signed into law by Veterans Day, but making that Nov. 11 deadline could be difficult with the House and Senate each scheduled to take a week off in October.

The VOW Act has the backing of every major veterans organization.

Paul Reickhoff, president of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said the bill is, at a minimum, a sign of progress after months of promises from lawmakers to address the employment programs for veterans. Especially hard hit have been people who have left the military since 2001. For these wartime veterans, the unemployment rate for September was 11.7 percent, the federal Labor Department reported on Oct. 7.

The bill “may not create a job in a straight line but it does put people in a line to get one,” Reickhoff said. “This is going to be a multiyear effort.”

Just passing a bill would help, Reickhoff said. The plight of unemployed veterans could get more national attention if Congress passes and President Obama signs a veterans jobs bill, and that may help attract financial support from businesses for job fairs and training programs that provide immediate assistance, he said.

“Corporate support for veterans is becoming tough. Funds are drying up,” Reickhoff said.

Dramatically lowering the jobless rate for veterans in two years, Miller’s goal, will be tough if the overall economy doesn’t improve.

A key element of the bill is a job retraining program for older veterans who have been unemployed for 26 weeks or longer and don’t quality for other veterans education or training assistance benefits. A retraining program that would include one year of GI Bill benefits would be created to teach a skill that could lead to immediate employment. The bill provides for 45,000 to be trained in 2012 and 55,000 in 2013.

Proposed improvements in military transition workshops might have a more immediate impact. The classes, provide shortly before discharge, would become mandatory for most service members. More attention also would be given to whether service members find jobs as a result of the training.

On the thorny issues of civilian licenses and credentials, the bill has no immediate answer to problems of converting military skills into immediate employment. The bill reauthorizes an experiment that ended in 2009 of trying to get states to cooperate with the military on setting standards for civilian qualifications.

Reickhoff acknowledged the bill could do more, but said getting this far as been difficult.

“I think it is the first employment bill to pass Congress this year,” he said, “and that should not be overlooked.”

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