Witness Testimony of Mr. Ismael “Junior” Ortiz, Acting Assistant Secretary, Veterans’ Employment and Training Service, U.S. Department of Labor
Good morning Chairman Stutzman, Ranking Member Braley, and distinguished members of the Subcommittee. Thank you for the invitation to testify today and for holding this important hearing on “Lowering the Rate of Unemployment for the National Guard.” I commend you all for your tireless efforts to honor the brave Americans who have worn the uniform of the United States of America and have risked so much to keep America safe.
We ask so much of these men and women: to put their careers on hold, leave their loved ones behind and embark on dangerous missions across the world. Yet the men and women that serve in America’s active, National Guard, and Reserve forces do so willingly and without hesitation. They selflessly serve their country and are a shining example of America at its best as President Obama remarked in his recent State of the Union address. At the Department of Labor (DOL or Department), we strive to honor their contributions every day. We do this by putting the full weight of our department behind programs to ensure rewarding careers are waiting for them when they come home. We must serve our returning Service Members and Veterans as well as they have served us.
That’s especially true now that the Iraq war has officially ended and we are winding down our presence in Afghanistan. Our returning Service Members deserve a hero’s welcome and a chance to utilize their unique skills to help rebuild our economy. Yet they often face a difficult transition back to civilian life. This is particularly true for the men and women of our National Guard and Reserve forces who are often unintentionally overlooked or underserved. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2010, recent Veterans who served during the post9/11 era had an unemployment rate of 11.5 percent, compared to a 9.4 percent rate among civilian non-veterans. Unemployment rates were particularly high among recent Veterans who have served or continue to serve our nation in the National Guard and Reserve forces. These Veterans had an unemployment rate of 14 percent in July 2010, almost five points above the civilian unemployment rate.
Our Nation has a sacred obligation to help these men and women overcome unemployment and get the good jobs and benefits that they’ve earned. We at DOL believe that this obligation includes providing them with the opportunity to utilize their unique skills to help rebuild our Nation’s economy. Through the Veterans’ Employment and Training Service (VETS), we provide Veterans and transitioning Service Members with the resources and services to succeed in the workforce by maximizing their employment opportunities, protecting their employment rights, and meeting labor market demands with qualified Veterans.
I would like to begin by discussing the work we are doing to decrease the unemployment rate for our Veterans, National Guard and Reservists, focusing on the issues you asked me to address, including the Department’s efforts to decrease the rate of unemployment, the need for additional employment services to areas of high unemployment among members of the Active and Reserve Components, and DOL’s efforts to educate about and enforce the provisions of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA).
Jobs for Veterans State Grants Program
The U.S. military services transition approximately 160,000 active duty Service Members and demobilize approximately 95,000 Reserve and National Guard Service Members annually. Transition assistance and employment services for Veterans are essential to help our service men and women reintegrate into the civilian labor force.
One of the Department’s programs aimed at meeting this need and decreasing the rate of unemployment among Veterans is the Jobs for Veterans State Grants (JVSG) program. Through JVSG, VETS provides funds for two types of Veterans’ employment specialist positions in the states: (1) the Disabled Veterans’ Outreach Program (DVOP) and (2) the Local Veterans’ Employment Representatives (LVER) program. DVOP specialists provide outreach services and intensive employment assistance to meet the employment needs of eligible Veterans. LVER staff conducts outreach to employers and engages in advocacy efforts with hiring executives to increase employment opportunities for Veterans, encourages the hiring of disabled Veterans, and generally assists Veterans to gain and retain employment. These services are provided primarily through nearly 3,000 One-Stop Career Centers across the country and benefit both the active and Reserve Components. Last year, the JVSG provided services to nearly 589,000 Veterans, and 201,000 Veterans found jobs
Transition Assistance Program (TAP)
Another important VETS program is the Transition Assistance Program (TAP), which provides Employment Workshops and direct services for separating Service Members, including members of the National Guard and Reserve. TAP is an interagency program delivered via a partnership involving the Departments of Defense, Labor, Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security. As part of this effort, VETS provides an Employment Workshop, which is a comprehensive two and a half day program during which participants are provided relevant skills and information, such as job search techniques, career decision-making processes, and current labor market conditions.
As you know, VETS is currently in the process of redesigning and transforming the Employment Workshop, the first significant redesign of the program in 19 years. The redesign, which is based on established best practices in career transition, will create experiential, effective, and enduring solutions for a successful transition from military to civilian life and employment. Among other things, the redesign will provide career readiness assessments to help returning Service Members translate their military experience into civilian job qualifications. Currently, VETS uses a mix of contractors, VETS Federal staff, Disabled Veterans Outreach Program (DVOP) specialists, and Local Veterans Employment Representatives (LVERs) as TAP facilitators. In the future, however, VETS will transition to all skilled contract facilitators, with DVOPs continuing their involvement in the workshops as subject matter advisors. In FY 2011, over 144,000 transitioning Service Members and spouses attended a TAP Employment Workshop at one of 272 locations world-wide. Of that number of attendees, 2,249 were Guard and Reservists.
With 95,000 Guard and Reserve members demobilizing each year, VETS has taken steps to provide them with transition assistance and employment services in the event they are not located near any of the 272 locations where TAP is normally provided. For example, we have organized the regular two and half day Employment Workshop into separate modules, including the program’s three core components (overview of USERRA rights, current labor market information, and explaining the roles of DVOPs and LVERs at One-Stop Career Centers), along with other basic courses such as resume writing and interview techniques. We often provide the three core components, and any additional modules, to Guard and Reserve units at the unit commander’s request. Further, we have committed to provide any requested TAP modules at the 30, 60, and 90-day Yellow Ribbon Reintegration programs, a Department of Defense effort to promote the well-being of National Guard and Reserve members, their families and communities, by connecting them with resources throughout the deployment cycle.
DOL is also working in partnership with the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs on the “Guard Apprentice Program Initiative,” which continues to build relationships with employers and colleges to facilitate civilian apprenticeship and employment opportunities for National Guard and other Reserve Component members.
Our State Directors for Veterans’ Employment and Training (DVETS) are part of the planning process when units in their area demobilize. They work with the stay-behind element of the unit and coordinate requested support. Let me share with you a few examples:
VETS and the Oregon Employment Department (OED) are partnering with the Oregon National Guard Yellow Ribbon Reintegration and Joint Transition Assistance Program (JTAP) staff to jointly address the employment needs of returning National Guard and Reservists. During the Oregon LVER/DVOP training conference in October 2011, OED hosted a joint training session to determine how we will partner together statewide to ensure Veterans are aware of the employment services available to them. This past year, the Oregon Army National Guard (3-116 Cav) deployed to Iraq in support of Operation New Dawn. While in-country, the military unit commander stressed the importance of addressing Service Members’ future employment needs and took the initiative to conduct employment status surveys of all deployed personnel. This employment information was shared with Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR), Yellow Ribbon JTAP and Oregon Employment Department Management, including LVERs, and used to coordinate “Skype employment interviews” with local employers, such as Boise Cascade. Upon return from deployment and at the 60 day interval, the OED provided aggregate data to the JTAP on the number of Guard and Reservists who found employment to the JTAP. Initial estimates found that of the original 113 soldiers who registered for employment in late May while deployed in Iraq, 51 have found jobs since their release from military duty. This does not account for the 26 soldiers who registered but do not live in the state.
Congressman Walz mentioned the 34th Infantry Division “Red Bull” Brigade Combat Team (BCT) Project in Minnesota during our last hearing in December. This project intends to hire 5 Veteran staff (2 LVER & 3 DVOP) to work specifically with this BCT. One LVER has already been hired and the remaining staff will be hired in April with the anticipated return of the BCT being May of 2012. In partnership with ESGR, pre-deployment interviews were held with each Service Member to identify employment and training needs. Five hundred and fifty Service Members are either unemployed or under employed. A referral process is being developed to get these Service Members the appropriate employment assistance immediately upon their return.
In June 2010, Tennessee’s DOL (TNDOL) started working with the Tennessee ESGR Chair to help the high number of unemployed Veterans returning from deployments. It was discovered that most of the unemployed Service Members were just out of high school or just graduating college and returning from their first deployment and had never held a traditional job. As a result, a committee of individuals was formed from different agencies, including the VA, USDOL, TNDOL, ESGR, Yellow Ribbon, TN National Guard Command Staff and a few others. The committee met several times and decided to try a TAP employment workshop. The first workshop was 2 days and was facilitated by contract facilitators. The workshop was open first and foremost to unemployed soldiers and their spouses and Service Members were put on orders to help with the cost of travel. After holding several workshops and a committee meeting, the committee decided to go to the traditional 2½ day employment workshop but also added a job fair at the end of each TAP workshop. Only employers with current openings who were looking to fill them were invited to the job fairs. To date, the Tennessee ESGR has hosted 18 workshops for 415 participants. Today that committee has grown to include other reserve units, and Commanders are calling asking for weekend drill TAP workshops for their unemployed soldiers.
Similar efforts are happening across the country. VETS State Directors (DVETS) work closely with the JVSG staff and partner with several other organizations to coordinate as many services to the Veterans and Reserve components as possible in their state. In Kentucky, for example, LVERs and DVOPs are fully integrated into Yellow Ribbon demobilization events across the Commonwealth, providing local labor market information and general One-Stop Career Center employment services. There is also direct coordination between the transition representatives at Camp Atterbury, Indiana - the local National Guard and Reserve demobilization point - where listings of individuals transitioning out and to Kentucky are provided to the Veterans Program Coordinator, who coordinates contact with a local LVER or DVOP. Through coordination with the Kentucky Guard command, LVERs and DVOPs have contacted local Guard units in their respective areas to offer direct employment assistance, either during normal Career Center business hours or, if necessary and more beneficial for all involved, during weekend drills.
To compliment our core programs and services, we are involved with a few other initiatives that provide additional employment resources in an effort to decrease the rate of unemployment of Veterans of the active and Reserve Components.
Veterans Jobs Bank
On November 7, 2011, President Obama announced a new Veterans Job Bank at www.nrd.gov, the National Resource Directory website. This job bank, a partnership among the Departments of Defense, Labor, and Veterans Affairs, is an easy-to-use tool that enables Veterans to find job postings from companies that are looking to hire them. It already searches nearly one million job postings and is growing. In a few easy steps, companies can make sure the job postings on their own websites are part of this Veterans Job Bank.
The Gold Card
Post-9/11 Veterans can now go to the DOL website and download a Gold Card, which provides them six months of intensive job counseling and personalized case management services at one of the Labor Department’s 3,000 One-Stop Career Center locations across the country. These services include career assessments, direct referrals to open jobs, interview coaching, resume assistance and training referrals.
My Next Move for Veterans
The Labor Department also launched a new website called My Next Move for Veterans. It can be accessed at www.dol.gov/vets. This website allows our Veterans to enter their military occupation code and discover civilian jobs where their skills translate. They can browse more than 900 career options. The benefit of these online tools is they can be accessed from just about anywhere.
We are also working with the private sector to increase the employment of our Veterans and returning Service Members. The first of these initiatives is our work with the US Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber, in partnership with VETS and ESGR, will have conducted 100 hiring fairs exclusively for Veterans, transitioning Service Members and their spouses between March 2011 and March 2012. Through this partnership, the Chamber and its affiliates secure the participation of employers, while the VETS team and ESGR focus on participation by Veterans, transitioning Service Members, and their spouses. The Chamber hiring fairs have hosted more than 84,000 Veterans and military spouses and given them the opportunity to meet with over 4,300 different employers. As a result, the effort has helped more than 7,300 Veterans and military spouses and 60 wounded warriors find employment.
Additionally, in an initiative sponsored by Microsoft, DOL has facilitated Microsoft’s contact with communities across the Seattle, Washington; San Diego, California; Houston, Texas; Northern Virginia; and Jacksonville, Florida regions, to provide Veterans with vouchers for no-cost training that can lead to important industry recognized credentials. Each area’s Workforce Investment Board will receive 1,000 vouchers per year for two years, totaling 10,000 vouchers, and will distribute them through the One Stop Career Centers.
Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA)
The last piece I want to discuss is DOL’s efforts to educate about and enforce the provisions of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA). VETS’ enforcement programs investigate complaints filed by Veterans and other protected individuals under USERRA, assess complaints alleging violation of statutes requiring Veterans’ preference in Federal hiring, and implement and collect information regarding Veteran employment by Federal contractors.
In addition to enforcing these rights, we do what we can to educate employers, as well as Veterans, Guard, and Reservists, on USERRA. VETS has long recognized the value of outreach and education as a means for avoiding USERRA disputes. Through the course of our history administering the statute, we have found that the vast majority of employers seek to comply with the law and remain highly supportive of our service men and women despite challenges imposed through multiple and repeated deployments. To that end, VETS has engaged in an aggressive public outreach campaign, aimed not only at our service men and women but to employers, attorneys, and human resources professionals as well.
In that regard, VETS’ outreach to the employer community begins with individual responses to technical assistance requests, which has proven highly effective in resolving disputes before formal complaints are filed. VETS staff has also sought out and given USERRA briefings to a large number of employer groups, professional human resources associations, State bar associations, the American Bar Association, Chambers of Commerce, law schools, and a host of other groups. In addition, VETS has developed online educational tools such as: an interactive USERRA elaws Advisor for both employers and employees that detail the roles and responsibilities for each under the law; Frequently Asked Questions; and USERRA 101 and 102 courses, which are designed to address the more commonly encountered situations and challenges facing employers. Perhaps most importantly, when conducting briefings and providing technical assistance in either a group or individual setting, VETS staff always provide direct contact information to reassure the public that help is just an e-mail or telephone call away.
For example, in the Chairman’s state of Indiana, VETS provides workshops on USERRA for Service Members stationed at the Camp Atterbury Joint Maneuver Training Center, including members of the Judge Advocate General’s Office. And similarly in Iowa, the Ranking Member’s home state, VETS and the Iowa Workforce Development (IWD) have undertaken numerous initiatives to assist recently returning Veterans and employers. The IWD Veterans Program partners with ESGR at their Lunch and Learn events for employers across the state. At these events, VETS and ESGR personnel teach employers about USERRA and how to deal with Veteran employment issues. In addition, IWD Veterans Program personnel train the employers on why they should consider hiring Veterans, how to market their jobs to Veterans, how to interpret Veteran résumés and what to expect from Veteran job applicants.
VETS is fully committed to fulfilling our mission. And, as I hope my examples, we are doing so through the combined efforts of all of the witnesses today as well as others. We pledge to you and to them to continue to work with them to improve the services and programs we provide.
Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Braley, Members of the Committee, this concludes my statement. Thank you again for the opportunity to testify today. I would be pleased to answer any questions you may have.