In the film Larry Crowne, a 50-something Navy veteran is laid off from his job at a megastore because he can’t compete against college-educated workers. Played by Tom Hanks, Crowne enrolls in college to learn new skills in order to be competitive in the 21st-century workforce.
Unfortunately, this isn’t just Hollywood storytelling; it is a depiction of the economic environment our veterans face. We celebrated our independence last weekend and then returned to work as usual. But nearly 14 million Americans did not. Among them are nearly 1 million unemployed veterans, men and women who preserved the right for the rest of us to celebrate our nation’s 235th birthday.
Like Larry Crowne, two-thirds of unemployed veterans are between the ages of 35 and 64, and many face skills and training deficits. The remaining third are younger than 35; some were as young as ten on 9/11, and forfeited safety and education knowing they would likely serve in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Veterans have the leadership, integrity, and ingenuity employers often seek. Yet, there is a disconnect between employers and veterans in translating the experiences that hail from the battlefield to work on Main Street USA. In some cases, it is the basics, such as résumé writing, a skill not taught at boot camp. In others, it is the inability to compete in the global marketplace.
Over the next two years, we will see an influx of active-duty military members transitioning to veteran status as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down. We must ensure that America’s veterans have the education and skills to find employment as they return home.
We have already set in place the building blocks for many of today’s veterans. Through the Post-9/11 GI Bill, eligible veterans are getting college degrees, enrolling in on-the-job training programs, and training in specialized fields such as aviation in higher numbers than ever before.
But there is more we should and can do. I am committed to the goal of reducing the veteran unemployment rate to below 5 percent over the next two years. By pairing long-term solutions with short-term initiatives, we can re-ignite our economy.
First, we must re-evaluate programs that are meant to acquaint our veterans with the civilian workforce. We owe it to these men and women, and every taxpayer, to ensure that these programs are effective, and that measures are in place to gauge their viability. If they are not working, we must find programs that will.
Second, we must give unemployed veterans of past wars temporary access to education programs to acquire skills, especially in fields with a shortage of workers, such as technology and health care.
Third, we must enforce the job protections in place for National Guard and Reserve veterans — 14 percent of whom are currently unemployed. Many of these troops took leave from their jobs, deployed, and fulfilled their duty to the nation, only to return home to a broken promise. Their employers must uphold their end of the bargain.
Fourth, we must work with states to eliminate the regulations that hinder job growth. Our veterans have skills that are of value in the private sector. Combat medics who have witnessed the most horrific aspects of war should be afforded the opportunity to work as EMTs. Convoy drivers of 14-ton-plus armored vehicles who have navigated IED-laden roads should be able to transition into the trucking industry, and flight-line techs, who fixed aircraft under the worst conditions, surely should qualify rapidly for work on commercial planes at our own airports.
And finally, we need to encourage businesses that hire veterans to provide mentoring so that employment is not only gainful, but meaningful. Simultaneously, we should encourage communities to take part in this national effort by seeking out the programs that are working that don’t expand government.
We cannot do this in a vacuum, however. We have an obligation to these men and women, and to all Americans, to decrease our debt, lower taxes that impede growth, and assure employers, especially the small businesses that are the engine of our economy, that help and leadership is on the way.
George Washington remarked in 1788, “Under a good government, this Country certainly promises greater advantages, than almost any other, to persons of moderate property, who are determined to be sober, industrious, and virtuous members of Society.” We need to rekindle the drive and optimism that led us to be a model for the rest of the world. It still exists. It is what our veterans have fought for over the past 200 years.
As we reflect on the meaning of our independence this week, we should remind ourselves that the cost of our freedom and opportunity has been the blood of our veterans. Today’s economic climate is not the homecoming they deserve.
—Rep. Jeff Miller (R., Fla.), is chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.