Witness Testimony of Mr. Curtis L. Coy, Deputy Under Secretary for Economic Opportunity, Veterans Benefits Administration U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
Good morning Chairman Stutzman, Ranking Member Braley, and Members of the Subcommittee. I am pleased to join you this morning to discuss the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) efforts to prepare Veterans for re-employment and/or retraining through the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) Program and the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program (VRAP).
The Secretary of Veterans Affairs has made Veterans employment one of his highest priorities. VA has several ongoing programs and initiatives that assist Veterans and Servicemembers with their transition and employment needs, including:
- The VR&E Program for our wounded warriors and disabled Veterans;
- Education programs, most specifically the Post-9/11 GI Bill, that prepare Veterans for future employment opportunities;
- Employment resources, including the eBenefits portal and VetSuccess.gov;
- Implementation of the “VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011,” (Public Law 112-56), specifically VRAP, and mandatory participation by Servicemembers in the redesigned Transition Assistance Program (TAP);
- The VA For Vets Program, helping Veterans seeking federal-sector employment in VA, as well as basic pre-employment job-search skills and;
- VA job fairs and other job fairs at which VA participates.
The Department of Labor’s (DOL) Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) most recently reported that overall Veteran unemployment was 6.3 percent, representing about 689,000 individuals. For our Post-9/11 Veterans, unemployment was above the national average at 10.0 percent, or about 209,000 Americans. The Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) Office of Economic Opportunity has Veteran employment as one of its key responsibilities. By combining our Education, VR&E, and Home Loan Guaranty programs under a single office, VBA is also leveraging existing VA benefits and programs to improve Veterans’ employment opportunities.
Veterans come with outstanding credentials. They possess valued skills, knowledge, and expertise, and they bring discipline, emphasis on teamwork, and an unparalleled mission-oriented work ethic to their jobs. Nevertheless, many continue to have trouble finding employment that matches their talents and interests.
VR&E PROGRAM FOR WOUNDED WARRIORS AND DISABLED VETERANS
VA has long offered employment services through the VR&E Program. Through 57 regional offices and over 160 out-based locations, the VR&E Program joins Veterans with more than 800 vocational rehabilitation counselors (VRCs) who assist Veterans with service-connected disabilities prepare for, find, and keep suitable jobs. The VR&E Program is available to Veterans who have a service-connected disability rating of at least 10 percent, with a serious employment handicap, or a rating of at least 20 percent, with an employment handicap.
With assistance from VRCs, Veterans evaluate their interests, aptitudes, and capabilities to determine the best career paths, given their service-connected disabilities. While the Veteran is in school, VRCs work with him or her, as well as school officials, to ensure benefits are paid on time. VRCs assist Veterans with their classes, ensure they are performing well, and provide additional tutoring or other assistance when needed.
Over 90 VR&E employment coordinators (ECs) across the country work with DOL Disabled Veterans Outreach Program specialists (DVOPs) and Local Veterans Employment Representatives (LVERs) to help place Veterans in suitable careers. ECs leverage relationships with civilian employers to help match each Veteran with an appropriate work place. ECs can also offer special programs to qualified companies that want to hire Veterans, including employer incentives, on-the-job training, and non-paid work experience. In fiscal year (FY) 2012, VA offered its first “EC Certification Training Course,” designed to standardize and establish consistency of services across the country, with 82 ECs certified after completing the training.
In FY 2012, VR&E provided services to over 114,000 Veterans, an increase of 5.8 percent from FY 2011. These services resulted in more than 8,000 employment rehabilitations, an increase from 7,420 in FY 2011. Over 70 percent of Veterans who completed a VR&E rehabilitation program are currently working in a professional, managerial, or technical career. Job placements vary greatly based on each Veteran’s specific needs. Approximately 60 percent of Veterans find careers in the private sector, including faith-based and community organizations, or opt for self-employment. The remaining 40 percent of Veterans find placements in Federal, State, or local governments. The average post-rehabilitation salary for Veterans in FY 2012 was $39,341, a 450 percent increase from pre-rehabilitation salaries.
For severely disabled Veterans who cannot currently participate in programs of vocational rehabilitation or seek employment, VR&E provides the Independent Living (IL) Program. Through this program, VA provides a wide range of services to assist Veterans in becoming as independent as possible in their activities of daily living. During FY 2012, approximately 2,700 Veterans successfully achieved their IL goals, both at home and in their communities. This was an increase from 2,442 in FY 2011.
VR&E personnel also provide educational and vocational counseling services to Veterans eligible for VA education benefits. Commonly referred to as “Chapter 36” counseling, eligible Veterans and Servicemembers who are within six months of discharge are able to meet with employment counselors to receive assistance in selecting their employment goals and choosing educational and training objectives to meet their goals. Through this program, beneficiaries can also receive counseling to facilitate their transition from active-duty service to civilian employment.
Helping solve the issue of Veteran unemployment begins with giving our Veterans a strong educational and/or training foundation on which to build their careers. The Post-9/11 GI Bill provides financial support to Veterans to pursue undergraduate and professional degrees, career and technical training, licensing and certification requirements, industry-recognized credentials or certificates, on-the-job experience, and even training in entrepreneurship. Since the program’s inception in August 2009, VA has issued over $23 billion in benefit payments to over 860,000 beneficiaries. During the 2012 fall term, VA received enrollments for over 470,000 participants attending institutions of higher learning, with another 9,200 beneficiaries enrolled in non-college degree programs. From meetings with employers, Veterans, and Veterans Service Organization (VSO) representatives, it is clear there is a great demand in our economy for Veteran employees. The concern facing employers is that they must find qualified employees who have the experience, education, and training needed to fill positions.
Where a Veteran is struggling in a particular subject area, tutorial services are available. To be eligible to receive tutorial assistance, a Veteran must be enrolled at least half time, receiving VA educational assistance, and have a need for the tutoring. The benefit comes in the form of a stipend, equal to the cost of tutoring but not to exceed $100 per month for twelve months. Remedial training in basic mathematics, reading, and English may also be available.
Executive Order 13607 (Establishing Principles of Excellence for Educational Institutions Serving Service Members, Veterans, Spouses, and Other Family Members) directed VA to assist to “stop deceptive and misleading” school recruitment efforts. To adhere to the President’s directive, VA applied to trademark the term “GI Bill.” On October 16, 2012, the US Patent and Trademark Office issued a certificate of registration to VA for the term “GI Bill” that will help prevent predatory school recruitment practices that target VA beneficiaries.
VA’s education and training programs, VRAP, and VetSuccess on Campus (VSOC) program are integrated and ensure that Veterans receive the foundation of skills and training they need to be successful in the civilian work place.
In the past two years, VA significantly improved its online employment resources. The VetSuccess.gov website is a “one-stop shop” that integrates the tools and information Veterans need to find employment and advance their careers. The site incorporates resources to help Veterans and their families in all aspects of their job search, from networking to completing applications and resume-building. The site allows Veterans to post their resumes and enables employers and hiring managers to search for qualified applicants. Over 4,300 employers and nearly 164,000 Veterans are registered on the site, and employers posted more than 18,000 job openings in FY 2012.
The VSOC program is another important initiative to help Veterans succeed in school by facilitating their transition from military to campus life. A VSOC counselor, placed permanently on select campuses, ensures Veteran students receive the VA benefits and services to which they are entitled while also serving as a liaison with school certifying officials. Counselors provide vocational testing, career and academic counseling, and adjustment counseling to resolve problems interfering with successful completion of a Veteran’s education program. In FY 2012, the VSOC program expanded to a total of 32 campuses. VA plans to add another 52 VSOC counselors in FY 2013.
The joint VA-Department of Defense (DoD) eBenefits portal is another web-based tool initiative that provides access to tools to assist transitioning Servicemembers and Veterans in their job search. This site allows users to search their online personnel file and access important service records needed when applying for civilian employment, including their separation documents (DD-214). The portal also accepts applications and provides information about Veterans’ education, home loan, compensation, and other VA benefits. The eBenefits site also features a “Career Center” with single sign-on capability to VetSuccess and VA for Vets. Additional online career tools are available to assist Veterans in completing self-assessments, translating their military skills to civilian occupations, and building their resumes.
On November 8, 2010, DoD directed all new Active-Duty, National Guard, and Reserve members who subsequently obtain a Common Access Card (CAC) to also obtain a Department of Defense Self-Service (DS) Logon credential for accessing the eBenefits portal.
IMPLEMENTATION OF THE VOW TO HIRE HEROES ACT OF 2011
The VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011 created VRAP to assist in employing the hardest hit segment of the Veteran population – Veterans aged 35 to 60. VA is authorized to provide VRAP benefits to 45,000 participants beginning in FY 2012 and an additional 54,000 participants in FY 2013.
Data on VRAP Applications
The VOW Act requires that VA and DOL jointly administer the process for determining an applicant’s VRAP eligibility. VA began accepting applications in May 2012 and received over 45,000 applications in the first four months the application was available. Interest in the benefit remains high, as VA receives more than 2,300 applications each week. There have been 250,000 logged visits on the VRAP web page to date. VA has already received more than 73,000 VRAP applications and issued over 62,000 certificates of eligibility to begin training in either FY 12 or FY 13. Of the applications received, approximately 5,000 VRAP applications were denied. More than 73 percent of denials were because the applicant was eligible for another VA education benefit. Other less common reasons for denying VRAP applications are that the applicant received a dishonorable discharge (17% of those denied) or did not serve on active duty (2% of those denied).
Age Breakdown of VRAP Participants
To qualify for VRAP, a Veteran must be unemployed, at least 35 years old but not older than 60, and must not be eligible for any other VA education benefit. Within the targeted demographic, the average age of VRAP participants is 49. Participants between the ages of 35-44 make up 26 percent, ages 45-54 make up 48 percent, and 55 years or older comprise another 26 percent of total participants. Participants come from all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. The states with the highest number of Veterans in receipt of a certificate of eligibility are California, Florida, Georgia, Texas, and North Carolina.
Funding for VRAP
More than 17,000 Veterans are currently enrolled in school using VRAP, and VA has already provided over $27 million in program benefits directly to these Veterans. VRAP provides up to one year of Montgomery GI Bill benefits to unemployed Veterans who wish to seek training in any one of the 211 high-demand career fields identified by our partners at DOL. To date, the most popular areas of study under VRAP are:
1) Computer support specialist;
2) Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselor;
3) General and operations manager;
4) Business operations manager;
5) Heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration mechanic;
7) Heavy and tractor-trailer truck driver;
8) Paralegal and legal assistant;
9) Registered nurse; and
10) Medical assistant.
These ten careers account for over 48 percent of all VRAP enrollees.
VA Plan to Promote VRAP in FY13
Based on current application rates, VA and DOL expect to reach the 99,000 participant limit in early-February 2013. This success came through a significant outreach effort by VA, DOL, and our partner agencies. To ensure the success of VRAP, VA produced and plans to air two radio public service announcements on more than 1,600 stations. VA produced and plans to air two internet and television advertisements on the following networks: CBS, ABC, Verizon, Comcast, Disney, and ESPN. Additionally, VA created multiple print advertisements and worked with several periodicals to have advertisements published, to include the Military Times and its service branch counterparts.
VA is not only focused on contacting potential VRAP applicants, but is also making significant efforts to reach those Veterans who received a certificate of eligibility and have not yet enrolled in school. We currently have over 75 email distribution lists containing over 3,000 email contacts and continue to actively spread the word about the VRAP opportunity. VA coordinated with several nationwide retailers to have VRAP flyers distributed to their customers during Veterans Day.
Title 2 of PL 112-56 required improvement of TAP, including mandatory participation for separating Servicemembers, individualized goal setting, military occupational specialty (MOS) crosswalk, and an end of military career event (CAPSTONE). VA, DOL, and DoD partnered to revamp the existing TAP program and have collaborated with a number of agencies on this initiative, including the Departments of Education and Labor, the Small Business Administration, and the Office of Personnel Management, to better prepare Servicemembers for transition. The result transforms the traditional, optional TAP into a mandatory, multi-day training seminar, piloted at various military installations, with the intent to provide continual improvements as enhanced benefits and technology advancements occur in the coming years. Representatives from DoD, DOL, and VA will provide several days of instruction on the various benefits available to Veterans and provide individual assessments to assist with translating skills developed in military occupational specialties to qualifications required for civilian employment. Traditional slide presentations given to large auditoriums full of transitioning Servicemembers are replaced by smaller, more personal classroom sessions. The new TAP will also offer optional workshops focused on the Servicemember’s intended civilian path -- education, technical training, or entrepreneurship. These workshops will provide personalized information to assist Servicemembers in their pursuit of education, employment, and business opportunities. The new TAP will also include Department of Labor Employment Workshops, which focuses on assisting Servicemembers in finding meaningful civilian employment.
VA FOR VETS
VA is leading the Federal government in hiring Veterans through its VA for Vets program, that is part of the Veteran Employment Services Office. The office was created in 2011 and became the first of its kind fully dedicated to Veterans’ Federal employment. VA for Vets prepares job-seeking Veterans for careers at VA. The program assists Veterans translate their military skills and training into civilian careers. It also provides tools and resources to human resources professionals, supervisors, and training managers to help them recruit and hire Veterans. In its first year, VA for Vets offered career coaching to 19,000 Veterans and helped produce over 28,000 Veteran resumes. Specific details on the program can be found on the Web site (http://vaforvets.va.gov/Pages/default.aspx)
VA JOB FAIRS AND OTHER JOB FAIRS AT WHICH VA PARTICIPATES
In January 2012, VA organized the first-ever, large-scale Veteran hiring fair in Washington, DC. Attended by more than 4,100 Veterans, the “Veteran Career Fair and Expo” resulted in over 2,200 on-the-spot interviews and more than 550 tentative job offers. At the June 2012 Veteran Hiring Fair in Detroit, coupled with the VA’s small business conference, employers interviewed another 5,700 Veterans and made over 1,300 tentative job offers. Veterans hire Veterans, so the more Veteran entrepreneurs we cultivate, the more opportunities exist for Veterans’ employment.
VA partnered with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in support of the Chamber’s Hiring Our Heroes initiative. The Chamber of Commerce hosted over 200 Hiring Our Heroes career fairs in 48 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. VA Employment Counselors attended almost 90 of those career fairs, where they connected Veterans with employers, assisted Veterans in applying for benefits, and provided career coaching on resume building and interview techniques.
VA and its partners have made significant strides in Veteran employment in the last two years. With an estimated one million Veterans likely to separate or retire in the coming five years and many of our youngest Veterans still unemployed, now is the time to redouble our efforts to bring the intrinsic values our Veterans have to bear to the civilian work force. VR&E and VRAP allow VA to take tangible steps to assist training and employing our Veteran population. We thank the Subcommittee in helping us achieve these goals and allowing us to testify on the important issue of Veteran employment.
Mr. Chairman, this concludes my statement. I welcome any questions you, or the other members of the Subcommittee, may have for me.