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Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez
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Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez

Remarks By
Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez,
DOL Salute To Veterans,
Washington, DC,
November 6, 2013

[as prepared for delivery]

Good afternoon everyone and thank you all for coming. It's an honor to join with you today in this celebration and salute to veterans. But I hope and expect that this event will be much more. During the roundtable discussion in particular, there will be a substantive conversation about how we can better connect returning service members with good job opportunities. The focus today should be not just on what veterans have done for us, but what we can do for them.

I want to thank Assistant Secretary Keith Kelly and his entire team at VETS for the outstanding work they do each day to prepare veterans for the workforce, help them find jobs, and protect their employment rights. And I'm pleased that we've been able to bring in outside experts who can lend a fresh perspective to these issues:

  • Sergeant Dakota Meyer, Medal of Honor recipient for his service in Afghanistan — in a few minutes, you'll see a stirring video about his remarkable valor in combat;
  • Former Congressman and Iraq war veteran Patrick Murphy;
  • Eric Eversole, Executive Director of the Hiring our Heroes program at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation;
  • Jose Serans, a Navy veteran and graduate of the United Association's Veterans in Piping Program;
  • And our own Terry Gerton, who was a career Army officer and now serves as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy at VETS.

It's a great panel that truly represents the diversity of stakeholders working on these important issues. The watchword here is partnership. This is an all-hands-on-deck effort, with multiple parties uniting around a common mission. Frankly, I wish every issue had this many willing and capable partners coming to the table. The challenge is to harness everyone's contribution, to coordinate it in a way that helps veterans make the transition as seamlessly possible to civilian work.

Here at the Labor Department, we work closely with the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs. But to echo Keith's remarks, the federal government certainly can't do it alone. We rely heavily on expert opinions from our private sector partners, like the Chamber of Commerce, which does such great work to help veterans get good jobs. We need the input of labor unions like the one that Jose is representing today. And we can't do it without our Veteran Service Organizations, which do such extraordinary work helping veterans in so many ways.

I grew up around stories of military service and heroism. I had several uncles who served in World War II. My Uncle Hugh would proudly bare his war wounds for you. Like my uncles, my father was born in the Dominican Republic, and he served in the Army even before he was a naturalized citizen. Like so many legal immigrants throughout our history, even before he was able to enjoy the full rights of being an America, he was giving back to the nation through military service.

But my father's connection to veterans and military service continued throughout his life. After leaving the Army, he got a job as a VA doctor, a job that he held until the day he died. So from childhood I had an appreciation, not just for the extraordinary sacrifice of our veterans... but the importance of providing them with quality services when they returned home.

And I've tried to devote my career in public service in part to providing and strengthening those same services. For my father, it was in the health care realm. For me, most recently as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, I worked to safeguard service members right to vote, to protect them from foreclosure and more. And now, as Secretary of Labor I have the opportunity to help veterans find their place in the civilian economy with good jobs. To give just a few examples:

We give veterans priority of service at our nearly 2,600 American Job Centers (AJCs) — one stop shops where job seekers can access all the resources they need. At most AJCs, we fund two principal staff positions are devoted specifically and directly to veterans' employment.

We have launched "My Next Move for Veterans," an online tool where veterans can enter their military occupation code and discover civilian occupations for which they are well qualified. The site includes information about apprenticeships and training programs, as well as links to job openings.

Working with the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, we have completely overhauled the Transition Assistance Program (TAP), which helps exiting service members prepare for civilian life, including a job search.

We also have a new program, the Women Veterans Initiative, a collaborative effort across several of our agencies, to address the unique challenges facing women who are leaving military service. And I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge First Lady Michelle Obama and Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden, who have shown strong leadership in this area with their work on the Joining Forces Initiative.

And while President Obama is doing all he can to encourage greater private sector hiring of veterans, the federal government is also one of America's largest employers too. The president decided early on his Administration that we cannot ask employers to increase their efforts to recruit veterans unless we do the same. So you may have heard in the news recently that, as a result of the President's direction, the federal government reached a 20-year high for hiring veterans in 2012 — almost 29% of all hires were veterans.

Hiring veterans is a win-win. Our service members are already well-trained professionals in high-demand areas like engineering, information technology and emergency medicine among many others. They also possess less tangible but absolutely essential skills that companies are looking for — leadership, problem-solving and teamwork.

That same fortitude and resilience they have exhibited in the military — without question, it can be brought successfully to bear in civilian work. If we trusted them with the nation's security, why wouldn't you trust them with a responsible job?

Why do smart businesses recruit veterans? It's not just because they themselves are patriotic Americans... though they certainly are. It's not just because they have profound respect for veterans... though they certainly do. It's because it's in their self-interest, because they know it's as sound a business decision as they can make. If we were to allow our veterans to become isolated, to live outside the economic mainstream, that wouldn't just be shameful from a moral perspective. It would be a foolish strategy for a nation that needs to grow its economy, invest in human capital and improve the skills of its workforce.

When my uncles and millions like them came home from World War II, the GI Bill helped them get an education, restart their lives and climb ladders of opportunity into the middle class. Today, as we wind down overseas military engagements and prepare for the exit of about a million people from the military, we face a similar challenge. We cannot back down from it.

A hero's welcome has to mean more than hometown parades and expressions of gratitude. We have to be there with the programs and the tools to help our former service members re-adjust and re-integrate. It's not enough even to call them heroes — here at DOL, we're not in the lip service business; we're in the opportunity business.

And it's not enough to pay tribute to them every November. We have to help them find work 12 months a year. Because the best way to honor a veteran is to hire a veteran, to help a veteran find a good job.

With that, let me turn it over to our distinguished panelists. To lead our discussion, former Congressman Patrick Murphy...