Joint Hearing of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs of the U.S. Senate and the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs of the U.S. House of Representatives at 1:00 p.m. CDT.
Witness Testimony of Marco Reininger, Legislative Fellow, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America
Chairman Stutzman, Ranking Member Braley, and Members of the Subcommittee. I want to thank you very much for the opportunity to testify before you today on behalf of the more than 200,000 veterans and supporters of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and the many veterans who are currently unemployed and looking for work.
My name is Marco Reininger and I am an Army veteran of the war in Afghanistan where I conducted investigations into Improvised Explosive Device attacks and insurgent networks. I currently attend Columbia University on the new GI Bill, studying political science, and I work as a legislative fellow for IAVA.
Mr. Chairman, unemployment is a major issue facing our newest generation of veterans. Approximately 214,000 or 10.9 % of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are seeking employment. Not only is this number unacceptably high but it also represents a tremendous waste of resources. The members of our armed services are some of the best trained, most disciplined, and most ambitious men and women this country has to offer and not equipping them with the tools they need to make a successful transition into the civilian workforce is bad economics. Hundreds of thousands and often millions of taxpayer dollars are spent on training each Soldier, Sailor, Airman, and Marine and they often receive the most cutting edge instruction available in technology, the medical field, and other fields. Thus, every service member that cannot find employment after transitioning out of the military due to a lack of effective transition assistance or insufficiently knowledgeable civilian employers is a missed opportunity to add a highly-skilled worker to America's workforce.
After two decades of no significant changes to the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) it is time to take a serious look at how we help our transitioning service members to be successful in the civilian workforce and enable them to find the jobs they deserve. IAVA, therefore, fully supports an overhaul of TAP as proposed by the Department of Labor (DoL). Additionally, IAVA advocates for an expansion of the Department of Veterans' Affairs' (VA) VetSuccess on Campus program to help veterans receive their GI Bill benefits on time, become successful college graduates, and be more attractive in the job market.
Transition Assistance Program
On March 3rd, 2011, the Assistant Secretary of Labor for the Veterans' Employment and Training Service put forward excellent recommendations to overhaul TAP and turn it into a more effective and relevant program during his testimony before the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs. IAVA supports the recommended improvements in addition to several other crucial items.
Nick Colgin is one vet who would have benefitted from improved TAP classes. Nick was a combat medic in the Army, but when it came to getting a job in the medical field in the civilian world, it proved almost impossible. Nick went through the TAP program, but was being treated for a TBI, and fulfilling other requirements to leave the Army at the same time, so the classes proved less than helpful. He was never taught how to write a resume or that he had to wear a suit to job interviews.
When it came to finding a job, Nick enrolled in a Wilderness First Responder class to get the proper certifications to work as a civilian medic. To get this certification, Nick had to use his GI Bill benefits. When he was found to be overqualified for the jobs he applied for, he decided to cut his losses and finish his college degree instead.
TAP needs to be a program that addresses each service member's unique level of experience, education, career of choice, and readiness to enter the civilian job market. Having a Lance Corporal Medic and Armor Lieutenant Colonel attend the same course, as is currently the case, is inefficient and a tremendous waste of opportunity. TAP should offer different categories of training and instruction based on a pre-course assessment of each transitioning service member's unique skill set. The goal of TAP should be to provide each transitioning service member with a clear roadmap on what steps to take to achieve his or her employment goals. A successful TAP would ask the service member “What are their employment or entrepreneurial goals?” and provide detailed answers on how to achieve them.
The traditional TAP elements of resume writing, building job interviewing skills, and choosing the correct attire for employment interviews are important and IAVA supports maintaining them. However, the content and delivery of these modules should be assessed and made relevant to the current job market and business environment.
Compared to past decades, very few employers and business leaders today have a direct relationship or even basic understanding of the military, making it difficult for veterans to translate their skills to the civilian world. Thus, in addition to the improvements introduced by the Assistant Secretary, the transitioning service member should be provided with the tools necessary to educate potential employers of the value he or she brings to the workforce. TAP should give service members the ability to help employers understand a military resume and translate military skills into civilian skills. While a national effort is needed to educate employers to the value of hiring veterans, transitioning service members cannot rely on best practices to be in place and need to be equipped to lead the effort themselves.
A crucial component of making TAP more relevant is the addition of online tools and e-learning modules. Making the program effective will require increased instruction time and more attention on the individual. An online platform would help facilitate such improvements without exploding the program's cost and manpower requirements. Additionally, it would allow service members to prepare questions for the instructors before and after the TAP course by completing e-learning modules and reviewing TAP materials online. TAP facilitators should in return be available to provide individual support by answering such questions via the online platform or a dedicated telephone hotline.
To create a standard quality of instruction TAP should be administered by Department of Labor (DoL) contracted instructors. Using contracted instructors would simplify having certified instructors, a standardized curriculum, and more accountability of the instructors without having to coordinate across federal, state, and local government agencies. These instructors should be assessed on their instructional abilities and training success.
Additionally, as part of making and keeping TAP relevant, DoL should begin measuring the program's success. The key elements of the program should be measured, as should the program's overall success in getting transitioning service members hired. Beyond the recommendations made by the Assistant Secretary, IAVA recommends that an outside organization with sufficient research capabilities and expertise in analyzing performance metrics be contracted to conduct such measurements. The most important point, however, is that these measurements function as a basis for a full third-party audit of the program every three years to ensure that the program remains efficient and current, and does not again become de facto obsolete regardless of who is in charge of the White House and the DoL. We need to build for the future and ensure that TAP is set up to serve many generations of service members to come.
Lastly, the program will not succeed if service members do not attend it or do not have enough time to learn the skills offered in it. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in a recent survey of over 600,000 veterans, 45% submitted that they never attended TAP when separating from the military. Therefore, we recommend for the program to become mandatory for all transitioning service members. Additionally, we recommend for the program to be sufficiently extended in duration to allow for all the suggested improvements to be implemented. In addition, an optimal TAP attendance window before separation should be determined to allow the service member sufficient time to prepare and adapt all the actions laid out in his or her transitioning plan. In the same BLS survey, a significant number of veterans indicated a preference for TAP to be offered six months prior to their discharge for such purposes.
Vet Success on Campus
One of the most valuable steps a veteran can take to be successful in the job market is to earn a college degree. The post-9/11 GI Bill has already opened the doors to success for thousands of veterans across the country that would have otherwise been out of reach. And, as the number of student veterans increases and hundreds of thousands of veterans enroll in colleges across the country we will see our nation transform for the better not unlike it did after World War II.
Along with this important new veterans benefit come challenges for the VA and the educational institutions benefiting from the student veterans. To mitigate those challenges, VetSuccess on Campus, the VA program that places VA personnel dedicated to educational benefit counseling on college campuses, could play a crucial role in ensuring that student veterans receive their benefits in a timely and uncomplicated fashion without their academic success being jeopardized by benefit complications. It could also ensure that educational institutions are informed and educated on the procedures and terms of the GI Bill, and that the VA is not burdened with erroneous or unnecessary certifications and paper work.
IAVA recommends that the number of vocational and peer-to-peer counselors as part of the VetSuccess on Campus program is increased and expanded to every campus that hosts a significant amount of student veterans. Currently, certifying officials are not trained to a specific standard or held accountable on whether they properly certify and facilitate the student veterans' educational benefits. And, while many educational institutions are doing an acceptable job in making sure their veterans are taken care of, other institutions are simply assigning already over-worked officials with the additional task of being a certifying official and navigating the complicated VA benefits process.
Without an enforced standard, standardized training, and officials solely dedicated to certifying and serving colleges' veteran populations, it is always the student veteran that loses out by having the stress of a complicated and problematic GI Bill process added to an already stressful course load. Additionally, correct GI Bill certification is crucial for the veteran to receive the proper living stipend in a timely fashion. Especially, for student veterans who provide for their dependents while attending college the stipend is an instrumental financial life support that cannot be tampered with. Dedicated on-campus VA counselors that assist student veterans are a critical tool that should be present at every campus in America.
The men and women that served our country in uniform are a tremendous resource of expertise, technical skill, and the right attitude for the workplace. In a time where our nation faces economic turbulence, high unemployment, and the perils of an ever-growing deficit we simply cannot afford to leave this resource untapped. We must ensure our separating service members get jobs and our veterans are hired. The suggestions IAVA made today are sensible and feasible steps to accelerate the process and we hope to be a resource to you in this endeavor.
Mr. Chairman, this concludes my testimony and I would be delighted to answer any questions you or the members of the subcommittee may have. Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak before you today.
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) receives no Federal grants or appropriations of any kind. Please contact me for any further inquiry at 202-544-7692 or firstname.lastname@example.org.