CORRY STATION NAVY BASE, Fla. – The president and some members of Congress want tax breaks, expensive studies and even a "reverse boot camp" to tackle the unemployment rate among veterans, which runs higher than the national average. Another option the Navy would like to see: Expand a program that has helped tens of thousands of soon-to-be-ex-sailors get certified to use their skills outside the military — medics leave ready for health care jobs, cooks are trained for restaurant work and so on.
The Credentialing Opportunities On-Line program aims to ensure that expensive military training isn't mothballed once a sailor hangs up the uniform. More than 45,000 sailors have obtained certifications or licenses paid for by the Navy to help them qualify for jobs as everything from pharmaceutical technicians to welders, police officers or restaurant chefs.
Program leaders say it could be a piece of the solution to curbing alarmingly high unemployment rates, particularly among younger vets. A March report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that more than 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were unemployed last year, while the civilian unemployment rate for the same 18-to-24 age group was 17.3 percent. For Iraq and Afghanistan veterans of all ages, the unemployment rate last year was 11.5 percent compared with a national jobless rate of 9.4 percent.
With the military drawdown in Afghanistan and Iraq and the economy still wobbly, the problem is expected to get worse.
On Friday, President Barack Obama proposed $120 million worth of tax credits to help companies hire the nation's 1 million out-of-work veterans. He also called on private employers to hire or train 100,000 veterans by the end of 2013.
But often the transition to the civilian workforce gets held up because qualified veterans lack the right paperwork. A Navy corpsman might work in a pharmacy or hospital on a military base or in a war zone, but frequently has to complete extensive outside training courses to do similar civilian jobs.
"A machinist mate can run a nuclear power plant on a ship without any certifications or licensing, but as soon as they get off that ship, they cannot go to the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) and run a nuclear power plant," said Keith Boring, who directs the certification program headquartered at Corry Station near Naval Air Station Pensacola, in the Florida Panhandle.
A veteran with experience on a nuclear sub would be "at the top of the agency's hiring list," TVA spokeswoman Barbara Martocci said.
"But that would not streamline any of the training. There may be some things that are redundant but a submarine is a different job than a civilian nuclear plant," she said.
That's where the Navy's program comes in. Launched in 2006, it paid for certification tests for 13,818 sailors last fiscal year at a cost of $3.7 million, getting them a step closer to walking directly into another job.
Among those who have benefited from it is Navy Chief Ron Clement, an electronics and information technology specialist who faced mandatory retirement in 2009 after a 23-year career.
"I was scared, very scared. I don't think it hit me until I got out just how bad it was going to be," said Clement, who was 41 at the time.
He quickly found work as an investigator for a private company doing background checks, a job he got partly because he had earned the certifications that qualified him to work as a Department of Homeland Security contractor long before he was discharged.
Thousands of veterans seek employment through Military.com, an offshoot of the job website Monster.com that caters to veterans. But Military.com's CEO, retired Adm. T. L. McCreary, said state government licensing rules often prevent veterans from finding good jobs that are equal to their military skills.
"Service members often cannot leave the military right away and find a job because of some state's licensing requirement. The service member will have to pay out of their own pocket to take a state program even though they might be qualified to teach the course they are paying to take. This is a major problem that the state and federal government need to fix," he said.
"We have medics or corpsmen who are preforming surgery on the battlefield and have dealt with trauma like you cannot believe, but they have to go through a several month (paramedic) program when they go back home to work."
A bill sponsored by Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, would require all services do some of what the Navy is doing. Murray's bill also would eliminate some of the red tape currently required for veterans to enter the federal workforce, and it would make sure all retiring military members participate in a transition program that teaches job-search skills.
Murray's bill would cost $30 million over 5 years largely to expand efforts to look at what people do in the military and how to more easily adapt those skills to the civilian workforce when they leave the military. Her office says the bill could save the federal government money in the long haul by lowering the military's unemployment costs.
The American Legion plans a national meeting on veterans' employment and credentialing in October.
"The tragedy is that veterans are often so qualified and have done so many amazing things that they can bring to employers. It is a missed opportunity for employers," said Joe Sharpe, director of the legion's economic division and an Army reservist with 28 years in the military.
Today's soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines work with advanced technology and often have useful management and communication skills, he said.
"The transition to leaving the military should start the day you enter the military. The private sector should be more involved in the training so they know what they will be getting when someone leaves the military," he said.
Navy Master at Arms Kris Thompson plans to leave the military in October after 10 years as a military police officer and dog handler. To work in the K-9 unit of most local police agencies, Thompson would need to spend several years as a beat officer before progressing to the K-9 unit. But the numerous anti-terrorism and Homeland Security certifications he's earned through the Navy's program will allow him to work immediately as a dog handler and security specialist for a private company.
"Especially within the K-9 industry, we do a lot of anti-terrorism work — they haven't found anything better than a dog to detect explosives," Thompson said. "The companies ask for these certifications, and if you have them, it improves your chances of getting a job."
Petty Officer Michael Garwood, 28, works with Thompson as a dog handler and doesn't plan to leave the Navy anytime soon. Still, he has obtained his Homeland Security and anti-terrorism certifications through the free online site.
"I'm not thinking about my post-military career but I know it will look good on my resume when I get out," he said.