VOW to Hire Our Heroes

Lost in the headlines about the mind-numbing debt ceiling debate and Japan’s  Women’s World Cup victory, the unemployment rate for new veterans jumped to 13.3 percent in June, 4 percentage points higher than the national average. Last time we polled IAVA’s membership, they reported close to 20 percent unemployment. In states like Michigan, Indiana and Minnesota, that figure is as high as 30 percent.

In real numbers, that’s only about 260,000 new veterans struggling to find work. That’s a number small enough that if our nation really focused on it, we could make a real dent. Especially when you consider a company like Walmart employs more than 2 million people alone. We all know most of the jobs (for veterans, and anyone else) have to come from the private sector. But Washington can play a critical role too.

A positive first step is The Veteran Opportunity to Work (VOW) Act, recently introduced to the House by Republican VA Committee Chairman Jeff Miller of Florida. The VOW Act would open doors for new veterans by creating the job training needed to stay competitive in this economy. It would mandate Transition Assistance Programs (TAP) for all separating service members, help military personnel acquire civilian certificates, and strengthen USERRA laws to protect Reservists and National Guardsmen who leave civilian jobs behind when they deploy. It is an important piece of legislation, and similar to the Hiring Heroes Act of 2011, which is currently making its way to the Senate floor under the guidance of Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Patty Murray of Washington.

The VOW Act would have a huge impact on the lives of veterans like Nick Colgin. While serving in Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne Division as a combat medic, Colgin proved himself over and over again. He saved the life of a French soldier that was shot in the head, and was ultimately awarded the Bronze Star for his actions over the course of his deployment.

Yet when Colgin got back from his tour, he was unable to find a job anywhere in the medical field. He was looking to work as a first responder in Wyoming, which was the equivalent of what he did overseas, but employers said he lacked the proper credentials and certificates. He eventually got the right paperwork, but only after using up some of his valued GI Bill benefits to take classes at a local community college (classes he could have taught).

This Congress hasn’t exactly been the job-creating machine we were all promised. And all Americans have a right to be frustrated. Not a single jobs bill has passed out of Congress yet this year. But these current pieces of legislation in the House and Senate can and should be the first ones. Both the VOW Act and the Hiring Heroes Act should be above typical Washington politics. As evidenced by the hard work and dedication of Chairman Miller, a Republican, and Chairman Murray, a Democrat, helping veterans find jobs is absolutely a nonpartisan issue. All Americans can – and should – support that. To find out if your Representative and Senator are one of them, check the list of co-sponsors here.

And the President should help too. He must use the bully pulpit to make that case to all Americans that hiring a veteran is more than just charity, it’s a smart business investment. Many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans already have unparalleled experience in leadership, human capital, project management and fiscal oversight. They are also early technology adopters, extremely resourceful and function well in teams. They have the skills every business needs. And of course, they’re tough. If a young Marine can command a platoon under fire in Fallujah, he can definitely run a trading floor on Wall Street. If America really wants to support the troops, hire them.

Leaders from both sides of the aisle must get moving, and swiftly pass these bills. By the end of the summer, they should be on the president’s desk for a signature. In a time of war, our veterans deserve no less.

To help lower high rates of new veteran unemployment, IAVA recently launched the Combat to Career initiative. This yearlong program brings the public and private sectors together to implement innovative solutions for reducing new veteran unemployment by Veterans Day 2011. To learn more about the Combat to Career program, click here. Then spread the word on Facebook or Twitter.

Paul Rieckhoff is the Executive Director and Founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and the author of Chasing Ghosts.