WASHINGTON-- Retired four-star Gen. Eric K. Shinseki will face a daunting task if he is confirmed as the next secretary of the Veterans Affairs Department: getting soldiers returning from war into the workforce in a very troublesome employment climate.
Nearly 900,000 veterans have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they could have a hard time finding or keeping a job. Many have been in and out of the workforce because of multiple deployments, and others face the prospect of being deployed overseas again.
"The unemployment rate among veterans is high and dramatically increasing," said Paul Rieckhoff, an Iraq war veteran and head of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which President-elect Barack Obama's transition team has consulted informally. "We need to hear about job creation, and how we are going to get veterans out and to work."
Shinseki, whose confirmation hearing will be held Wednesday before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, will be expected to engage in a government-wide job creation strategy. The challenge will be especially daunting because of the numbers of military members who have returned recently from Iraq and Afghanistan, and the even greater number expected to return as America withdraws its fighting troops from Iraq.
Obama has instructed each of his Cabinet nominees to begin charting out job-creation strategies as part of his overall vision of generating more than 3 million jobs through a proposed $775 billion economic recovery package. In his weekly radio address on Saturday, Obama said 90 percent of the jobs would be created in the private sector.
His remarks came one day after the Labor Department announced the nation's unemployment rate rose to 7.2 percent in December, a loss of 524,000 jobs in a month. For all of 2008, the country lost a total of 2.6 million jobs.
Veterans' advocates like Rieckhoff say recent veterans between 18 and 35 years old -- the majority of Iraq and Afghanistan vets -- are a distinct disadvantage. Of the 1.6 million men and women who have served since 2001, hundreds of thousands have deployed for more than one tour. Many came from the National Guard and Reserves, and despite laws protecting their jobs when they were deployed, they came back to find their jobs gone, or they were told they could not return to their positions.
Many of these men and women now "have to keep up with their peers, who have been networking (for) years while they've been fighting in Fallujah," Rieckhoff said, explaining that they don't have the same kind of connections and amount of uninterrupted time in the workforce as their counterparts who didn't serve.
He said there have been reports that employers are skittish about hiring part-time soldiers who may be sent back overseas, and hesitant to hire veterans, for which a behavioral and mental stigma -- however unfounded -- exists.
The Uniformed Services Employment and Redeployment Rights Act says that all employers -- public and private -- must take returning soldiers back to their positions, and at the same pay, as when they left for war.
But, according to reports, thousands of veterans have complained over the last few years that their employers haven't been adhering to the law. In November, it was reported that over 10 percent of all National Guard and Reservists who came home had encountered problems returning to work, particularly in the corporate sector. Lawsuits have been filed against some of the country's biggest employers -- UPS, American Airlines and Wal-Mart.
Dave Miller, vice president of Con-Way freight, said his trucking company goes "beyond the call of duty" not only by upholding the Uniformed Services employment law but by making sure employees make the same hourly wage even when they are deployed. For example, if a trucker makes $58,000 a year under Con-Way, then only $28,000 under the Guard overseas, Con-way pays the difference.
The company also maintains the employee's health benefits and health care for his family, Miller said. He said 28 employees were deployed in 2008, costing the company $500,000 for the year. A total of seven are deployed now.
But Miller said Con-Way has been hindered by the ongoing use of National Guard and reservists in multiple deployments abroad. Because they are part-time soldiers, they do not get the job security and benefits given to an active-duty soldier, sailor or Marine.
"So many businesses are retracting -- vets have no place to go," he said. "They're coming out of a very high energy situation ... the worst thing we can do is to have these warriors come home to no job."
Meanwhile, Shinseki, a popular pick with veterans' organizations, has vowed to make veteran employment and education a priority. He says he wants to work with the new administration to fast-track the implementation of the new veterans' GI Bill, passed in 2008 to give returning vets more money for college tuition.
VA officials said they are taking a two-pronged approach -- working with the veterans in the VA system to transition into employment through a wide range of vocational and educational support services, as well as reaching out to veterans to place them into VA jobs across the country.
"Not only is it the right thing to do, but we're taking advantage of these highly skilled, educated folks. It seems like the perfect match," said Dennis May, director of the Veterans Employment Coordination Service for the VA in Washington. He said his department has reached out to 2,600 "severely injured" veterans to see if they are interested in applying for VA positions.
Veterans are given hiring preferences at both the federal and state levels.
Overall, May's group has reached out to 28,000 veterans, provided services to 11,000 and placed 64 in VA jobs.
Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, an Iraq war veteran, is also working with the Obama transition team on VA issues. Although he declined to talk specifically about the administration's plans for the department regarding jobs, he said that officials in his own state have embarked on a multi-level effort to help vets transition back into civilian life, including vocational support.
For example, veterans trained in battlefield trauma and in medical assistance but who are not certified to practice it in civilian life may soon find the hurdles lowered, Brown said.
"Many, when they come home, they want to apply those skills (in the health field) and there are obstacles like licensing and certification. No one is saying there should not be any quality control," Brown said, but some of the steps are "overly burdensome" and could be relaxed.
Jack Scharrett, an Army reservist who served in Iraq, has launched the Veterans Initiative Center and Research Institute to help entrepreneurial veterans build businesses and create jobs for other veterans across his state of Minnesota.
"It's been proven year after year that veterans hire other veterans," Scharrett said. "Being a small business owner -- and I've been there -- can be a very daunting exercise, with everyone constantly telling you 'no.' ... We're struggling ourselves to get the capital we need. We are having to look at our strategy hard and be very austere."