Testimony Of Keith Kelly, Assistant Secretary For Veterans' Employment And Training Service Before Subcommittee On Economic Opportunity, United States House Of Representatives, April 10, 2013

Testimony Of Keith Kelly, Assistant Secretary For Veterans' Employment And Training Service Before Subcommittee On Economic Opportunity, United States House Of Representatives, April 10, 2013

Good afternoon everyone, I'd like to thank you all for including the Department of Labor Veterans' Employment and Training Service at this years' National Convention for AMVETS.

It's really an honor and a privilege to be here with you all today. As a veteran, I must say that you all make me very proud.

On behalf of Secretary Perez and The Department of Labor, I want to congratulate you for your legacy of helping our Heroes, and for making such a positive impact over the years on our society as a whole.

I believe, as does Secretary Perez, that we have an obligation to honor and serve these men and women who have served us. Your commitment to taking care of our veterans is unparalleled and deserves the utmost praise.

You know, I've been on the job with VETS for several months now, and I am impressed with how many people across government, the private sector, and non-profit organizations are working to solve the challenge of veterans' unemployment. It truly is a partnership, an unprecedented level of teamwork, and it is making a difference.

What we are facing today, and in the years to come, is a wave of returning veterans whose needs will far exceed the capacity of any single stand-alone program. We need an integrated, total government, community, and corporate effort to support these veterans as they leave the military, return to their communities, and seek to enter the civilian workforce. This goes far beyond "it takes a village," (pause) it takes a nation!

You can look around and see in our combined presence how much the level of government cooperation and commitment has grown in this endeavor. It starts with the President and First Lady, and flows across every government agency. But, commitment alone is not enough. It takes hands-on effort and individual attention, and when commitment, effort, and attention come together on behalf of veterans, the effect is powerful.

The unemployment statistics released for June contained good news—the overall unemployment rate for veterans declined from 6.6% in May to 6.3% in June, and it was down a full 1% for the subset of post 9/11 veterans. But inside those statistics are indicators that certain groups still face steep struggles.

The unemployment rate for veterans aged 18-24 is a staggering 20.5%. On top of that, we know that there are over 10 million veterans, including 1.6 million service-disabled veterans, who are currently out of the labor force. As we bring our troops home from Afghanistan and downsize our military forces, we expect the population of veterans to increase by as many as 200,000 each year over the next five years. These numbers tell us that there is real work to be done to help our veterans prepare for, find, and succeed in civilian employment. That means that those of us tackling the challenge of placing these veterans in meaningful civilian jobs have a great opportunity ahead of us. Partnering is the key to success here. No single agency has the resources or the expertise to tackle this challenge alone.

Within the Department of Labor, VETS is the sole agency completely dedicated to serving veterans' employment needs, but we work directly with the Employment and Training Administration (ETA), the Women's Bureau (WB), and several others. VETS executes its mission through what we call the "P-3" campaign. The three "P's" are Prepare, Provide, and Protect. We prepare separating service-members and their spouses to transition from the military to the civilian workforce through the DOL Employment Workshop component of the Transition Assistance Program (TAP); we provide veterans with critical resources, expertise, and training to assist them in locating and obtaining meaningful careers; and we protect the employment rights of service members and veterans by investigating allegations of wrongdoing under the Uniform Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA). I would like to tell you a little bit about some of the programs and initiatives that we are working on together with our partners across the government to support our "P-3" campaign.

The first major piece of collaborative effort is our Transition Assistance Program. TAP is a joint program between DoD, VA, and DOL that prepares service-members and their spouses to make the initial transition from military service to the civilian workplace with less difficulty. DoD counsels service members on everything needed for them to successfully transition. The VA counsels service members on healthcare and educational benefits. DOL delivers a three day Employment Workshop where professionally-trained workshop facilitators present material associated with job searches, career decisions, current occupational and labor-market conditions, résumé preparation, and interviewing techniques.

Since the launch of our new Employment Workshop portion of TAP in January of this year, we have received quite a bit of feedback from participants. Overall, service members are giving the program high marks. It probably would not surprise you, though, to hear that the most common critique that we have get is that many service members wish they had time for more one on one counseling with resume building. It would be great if we could provide service members the additional time required to have more intensive one on one career counseling. But, our time with them in class is limited. Instead, we do refer those who want more help to their nearest American Job Center for additional services. This connection to a real person, a counselor at the AJC, something we call a warm hand over, can make all the difference.

We in the federal government are serious about ensuring our service members receive warm hand offs as they transition out of the military, but that is not always as easy as it sounds. After all, when service members separate from the military, they generally are not from the area where they were stationed and often do not stay in the area after they leave the service. For many, after separating they either return home or move to an area where there are employment and educational opportunities. Most veterans navigate this employment and geographic transition smoothly, but some find it very challenging. These individuals begin life anew in a new location, and in the transition lose their ties to benefits, resources, and communication.

Government agencies have been working together to ensure that service members receive the warm hand off they require to transition successfully. We hope that service members use their TAP skills and resources effectively and are able to find civilian employment soon after separating from the military. But we know that in many cases there are special challenges that make finding that job more difficult. In these situations VETS provides a variety of programs—many in partnership with other federal agencies that offer additional assistance.

We are currently working on several programs and initiatives to improve the effectiveness of our post-transition programs. One of the more significant advancements that we are working on is to increase the points at which we communicate information about the AJC to separating service members (SSM) and new veterans, to ensure they fully understand the AJC services available, and to entice them to use those services.

Currently, DOL only interacts with a separating service member during the Transition Assistance Program (TAP). This interaction happens about 4 months before a service member is scheduled to separate. But they know they will be separating as early as 8 to 12 months before they attend TAP, so we see an opportunity to begin advising them of AJC services as soon as they have decided to separate. We are working to increase by four-fold the number of times we present AJC resources to the transitioning service members and new veterans.

The First Touch will occur as soon as the service member makes the decision to retire or separate. Our plan is to have DoD provide our written material to the service member at that point advising them about AJCs, what they can do for the service member, and how to locate the one in the community where they expect to live. The Second Touch is accomplished during the TAP Employment Workshop. The Third Touch would be at the DoD-sponsored Capstone event, where the separating service member will be provided a reminder of the AJC services and where the Service representative will confirm the service member has the contact name and number for the AJC nearest where they intend to live. Finally, the Fourth Touch would occur approximately 6 to 8 weeks after the service member leaves the Service, when there will be contact with the new veterans to see if they need employment assistance. If so, they will be directed to the AJC nearest to where they reside. Our ability to execute this increased outreach relies on a high level of cooperation between DoD and DoL. Through collaboration such as this we are able to better communicate with service members from the time they begin their transition planning process up through separation. This way, we can work to better remind a service member stationed in Hawaii, for example, that there are services for them when they return home to New Hampshire, and we can connect them directly to a representative in that area. We expect this increase in communication and contact to positively affect employment outcomes.

As I said initially, VETS' first task is to prepare service members for their transition to civilian employment, primarily through TAP. We then provide resources through a variety of programs to help connect veterans with the right job for them. One important initiative that we are working on in this space is a Single Portal resource for veteran employment information. A common complaint of separating service members, veterans, spouses, and employers is that the web is proliferated with sites that claim to be THE source for veteran employment information. Many of these sites are good; some are not very good at all. This clutter of sites makes it very difficult for a user to hone in on a reliable source of information. Although the Federal government, rightfully, will not tell a private entity that they can or cannot build a veteran employment web site, it can ensure that its Departments and Agencies move to one USG-sponsored site. The goal of this portal is to reduce the confusion experienced by separating service members, veterans and employers by providing for one, USG-sponsored web portal, through which comprehensive and easily accessible veteran-related employment information is provided.

Conceptually, the single portal will be a front end screen that provides one-click access to the best in class applications for private and public sector job banks, military skills translators, and resume preparations in its initial functionality. We would expect, in later versions to add the ability to more directly match veterans with jobs, a capability all of our customers are asking for.

In addition to the portal, there are a variety of programs that focus on increasing the number of veterans employed across the federal government. In November 2009, President Obama signed an Executive Order on the Employment of Veterans in the Federal Government, which created the Interagency Council on Veterans Employment. This initiative and its council seek to increase the number of veterans in the federal workforce. Agencies are now required to establish a Veterans' Employment Program Office with full-time responsibility for its Veterans' Employment Program. You might think that the federal government hiring veterans would be a no-brainer…but we know this guidance is making a difference in people's lives.

Also, we have the Veteran Employment Initiative Task Force that was established by a charter in September 2011. This Task Force is led by DoD and VA and includes many other federal agency partners. On the Executive Steering Committee, DOL is represented by the Assistant Secretaries for Employment and Training and for Veterans' Employment and Training. The Task Force will provide concrete recommendations on how to ensure that service members are career-ready by the time they complete the transition from military to civilian life

Then, we also have the Joining Forces Initiative led by the First Lady and Dr. Jill Biden. Joining Forces is a comprehensive national initiative to mobilize all sectors of society to give our service members and their families the opportunities and support they have earned. DOL is working through this initiative to help highlight the workforce potential of veterans and military spouses, whose moves from one community to another make it difficult to continue their careers or find similar jobs in new locations. This initiative has already helped to expand employment and career development opportunities and help employers create military family-friendly workplaces, and it continues to be a strong voice endorsing the importance of hiring veterans.

These kinds of programs—interagency councils and public awareness campaigns-- are great for improving processes and encouraging participation, but we at DOL understand that general purpose programs will not address the specific needs of all demographics. For example, in 2012, 8.3 percent of women veterans faced unemployment, while male veteran unemployment dropped to 6.9 percent and women non-veterans to 7.7 percent. A recognition that women veterans may face distinct employment challenges led to the commitment of new resources to address these issues. DoL has established a Women Veteran Initiative, based in VETS, to clearly identify and address conditions that hinder women veterans from finding and retaining meaningful civilian positions. In this effort, we will work closely with the VA on women veterans' health issues, Health and Human Services on support for housing and child welfare, and many of our partners in academia and the VSOs to advance the research into the underlying conditions and effective solutions.

What we do know is that women continue to hold key roles in our military… they are 14.6% of the active duty force, 18% of the National Guard and Reserves, and 20% of the new recruits. Currently there are 2.2 million women veterans and they are the fastest growing cohort within the veteran community. The V.A. is reporting that more than 150,000 women will be transitioning out of the military in next few years! And so, in the face of the growth in this population, their tendency toward higher unemployment rates indicates that we have a real challenge on our hands.

So here's how the new Women Veteran Initiative in my organization, VETS, is being proactive. This dedicated team, which includes staff from the Department of Labor's Office of Secretary, the Women's Bureau, and VETS, is working together to accomplish three immediate goals:

We are already making progress, and here are some exciting examples. We have reached out to DOL women veteran employees to learn from their successful transitions effective ways to expand employment services. There are several research projects in the works that will give us substantive data upon which to make solid program and policy decisions. And, just a couple of weeks ago, DOL hosted a listening session with over 100 VSOs and advocates to gather best practices, build partnerships and identify resources that will support all of our efforts to better serve women veterans. And finally, we have created and position within VETS and are close to hiring our first full-time women veteran's program manager who will focus solely on women veteran's employment.

Another program created to address the needs of a particular segment of the veterans population is the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program. This program was created to provide eligible veterans retraining assistance for up to 12 months when they pursue a qualified training program. DOL and VA jointly administer this initiative, with DOL certifying veterans' eligibility prior to the training and providing them with job placement services upon completion of the training. DOL must certify that the veteran at the time of application is: (1) between the ages of 35 and 60; (2) unemployed; (3) was not enrolled in a Federal or state job training program in the prior 12-months. DOL must offer VRAP participants employment services after termination and track employment outcomes.

According to the VA, over 128,000 individuals have applied to the VRAP program as of July 17th. Out of those individuals, over 112 thousand have been approved. 57,000 of those approved applicants have been enrolled in a training program.

Programs and initiatives such as these have been integral in helping to ensure that our veterans are, now more than ever, better prepared to transition into employment after separating from the military. President Obama has said, "We have a sacred trust with those who wear the uniform of the United States of America. It's a commitment that begins at enlistment, and it must never end." That commitment includes helping veterans and transitioning service members find good, middle-class jobs. I've highlighted for you today just a few of the initiatives where agencies across the Federal Government are working together to meet this commitment. But, there are many others.

By working together across the boundaries that have often divided us, by bringing together the collective resources of the government, the private, and the non-profit sectors, and by committing ourselves to this most important of causes with effort and attention, we can meet our Nation's obligation to the men and women who have served our country in uniform. As we move forward in our endeavors we encourage all of you to continue working with us to share your ideas, support, and services so that we can give our nations' veterans the bright future they deserve.

Thanks for giving me your podium for a few minutes today, and thank you for all you do every day to support our veterans.