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Opening Statement of Hon. Jeff Miller, Chairman, Full Committee on Veterans' Affairs

Good morning everyone.  Thank you for being here.  Our hearing today, “Putting America’s Veterans Back to Work,” is one of the most important ones we’ll have this Congress and that is why I have decided to proceed with this hearing even though many of the Members on our side of the aisle are meeting with President Obama this morning.  Just last week I, and other Committee Members, met with dozens of veterans’ organizations who were nearly unanimous in making jobs for veterans their number one priority.  I couldn’t agree more.

Lengthy unemployment can cause an unbelievable amount of strain.  Bills don’t get paid, savings can be exhausted, and family needs have to be put on hold.  The financial strain of not having meaningful employment has a cascading effect for many…family problems, declining mental health, homelessness…we’ve got to get the economy going again to put Americans back to work, especially those who have protected our freedom to work in the first place.

Growing the economy starts with the fundamentals:  keeping taxes on small businesses low, which necessarily means holding Federal spending down; reducing burdensome and unnecessary regulations that increase costs to small businesses; and ensuring we have a trained, skilled workforce ready for 21st Century jobs in a 21st Century economy. 

It is this third area – ensuring a trained, skilled workforce -- that the Veterans’ Affairs Committee is primed to lead.  There are a number of programs run by VA and the Department of Labor that have the potential to help. Our task is to see if those programs, as designed, are effective. 

Our responsibility is to modernize them to respond to the specific needs that exist for unemployed or underemployed veterans in our economy. 

Let me highlight a few areas where I think we need improvement. 

First, the unemployment rate among all veterans of the Global War on Terror has been reported to be as high as 13.1 percent.  This high rate exists despite the fact that Transition Assistance Programs for separating servicemembers looking for work are available, as are Federally-funded veterans employment specialists within every state.  We need to look at these programs anew to see how they can be improved.

Second, training and education benefits through the new Post-9/11 GI Bill and other programs are valuable tools for veterans.  However, as currently designed, they do little good for middle-aged veterans far removed from military service who may need new skills to break out of unemployment.  To highlight the point I’m making, on May 2, the Conference Board released its data showing there are nearly 4.5 million jobs advertised on the Internet.  The Board’s data also show the top 10 career fields with a heavy presence of jobs requiring hard skills. 

To me, this shows that good jobs are out there, we just need to retool the programs we have to help our veterans compete for them.

Finally, there are legal protections for Guardsmen and Reservists who left work to fight for our country.  By law, they are entitled to have or go back to their jobs when they come home.  We need to be aggressive in enforcement of this law. 

And just one more thing, we need to have a better understanding of the demographics of unemployed veterans.  Things like education levels, lengths of unemployment, skills learned in the military, just to name a few.  We will hear some of that from our witness from BLS but I believe it is time to expand the facts we know about unemployed veterans.

As a beginning, I hope that today’s witnesses can provide some insight into what we can do to help veterans get the jobs they want and deserve. 

I have some ideas of my own, so, to get the ball rolling, I will soon introduce a new jobs bill for veterans. The principles of my bill are simple:

1.      We need to provide a meaningful retraining program for our older veterans who make up two-thirds of all unemployed veterans;

2.      We need to ensure Transition Assistance Programs for our younger veterans are effective and, just as important, utilized when they separate from the military;

3.      We need to add flexibility and accountability to Federally-funded job training programs; and

4.      We need to ensure we have updated legal protections for veterans who want their jobs back on their return from active duty, and we must do better enforcing those protections.   

I know Members will have other ideas as we go forward, but –keeping in line with the theme of this hearing -- I’m anxious to roll up my sleeves and get to work.  As with any work, we need to set goals and let me tell you what my goal is.

I believe that an unemployment rate of between four and five percent is generally accepted to be full employment.  So,  I want to begin today’s hearing by setting a goal to reduce unemployment among veterans from its current level of 7.7 percent down to about 4.5 percent.  That means, using the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ April data, we need to reduce the number of unemployed veterans from April’s 873,000 down to around 470,000 or a reduction of about 400,000 veterans.  I think we can do that and I invite every Member of the Committee to join me in achieving that goal; not overnight, but over the next year or two at the outside.  

I now recognize the Ranking Member for his opening remarks.