Friday, June 01, 2012

The new boss, worse than the old boss






"We just spent last weekend, and in particular Monday, honoring our nation's defenders that are no longer with us.  Now it's time for us to renew our focus on those who still need our help in securing a good job," declared US House Rep Jeff Miller drawing this morning's House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing to order.    The hearing explored the VOW To Hire Heroes Act which Chair Miller hailed as  "an excellent example of what we can do when we all work together."
The Committee heard from VA's Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey who was accomanied by VA's Curtis Coy and they heard from the Labor Dept's Acting Assistant Secretary of Veterans Employment and Training Ishmael Ortiz who was accompanied by Kathy Tran.  Why the hearing?
Chair Jeff Miller:  While I am impressed by the level of effort being made by program level staff at both departments, I am concerned that not enough is being done by either cabinet secretaries [VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis] or the President [Barack Obama] himself to promote this benefit.  Getting the message out about this opportunity is critically important to putting unemployed veterans on a path to a job in a high-demand field.  Clearly, aggressive promotion by the nearly three thousand One Stop Employment Centers are the key to filling the 99,000 training slots that have been authorized by the VOW Act.  I want to give you just one example -- one example of why I am concerned that despite VA's significant outreach efforts -- for which I commend them -- problems are still arising.  Staff was contacted by a community-based organization in Georgia about what appears to be a lack of effort to get the program started.  Shortly after the passage of the VOW Act, the organization contacted the Augusta One Stop Employment Center about how to enroll unemployed vets in the program.  They asked again in mid-March and the DVOPS and LVERs were still not aware of the program.  Two weeks later, Augusta told them the Georgia Department of Labor was not aware of VRAP.  In early April, both the Georgia and South Carolina Departments of Labor stated they were waiting for policy from DC.  In late April, there still appeared to be little understanding of how the program would work.  It appears that finally, on May 11th, 2012, a mass e-mail from VA was released detailing how the program would be implemented, only 4 days later on May 15th.  Obviously, if that is typical of the level of awareness at the One Stop Centers, I think we all agree we've got big problems with the potential launch coming up shortly.
On the subject of veterans hiring, the Dept of Labor is holding a Veterans Hiring Fair next week on Wednesday, June 6th.  It will be at the Great Hall of the Frances Perkins US Dept of Labor Building on 200 Constitution Ave. starting at ten in the morning and ending at one in the afternoon.  So that's just three hours and they're hoping for a large turnout.  After this morning's hearing, I went to talk to a friend at the Labor Dept to make sure I understood some of the issues from the hearing.  When I brought up Miller's solid issue of getting the word out, I was told that even in DC it can be a struggle to get the word out and that job fair was used as an example.  So I'm including it here at the top.  You will need veteran i.d. to enter the job fair.  And it is open to all adult veterans.   Repeating, that's next week on Wednesday. 
Also for FYI purposes, we'll note Allison Hickey's opening remarks regarding Veterans Retraining Assistance Program applications:
VA and the Department of Labor collaboratively developed the VRAP application process and the requirements for the information technology system changes to support this process.  To efficiently leverage existing systems, VA modifided its application for VA education benefits for use by the VRAP applicatns.  The VRAP application is available online at, a web site developed specifically for portions of the VOW to Hire Heroes Act.  This site can be accessed through eBenefits, the GI Bill web site, DoL web sites and numerous other web sites.  Additionally, Veterans can visit their local DoL One-Stop Career Center locations for application assistance.  Applications can be submitted through VA's Veterans Online Application web site.  To be eliglbe for participation, DoL must determine that the applicant is unemployed, not enrolled in any federal or state job-training program and is between the ages of 35 aand 60.  VA verifies the applicant's veteran status and type of discharge, and confirms that the applicant has no other VA education benefits available for use, and is not in receipt of compensation for a service-connected disability rated totally disabling by reason of unemployability.  After eligibility has been established, the applicant identifies his or her intended high-demand occupation category and applicable training institution.  Information about the high-demand occupations, identified by DoL, is availabe on VA's VOW to Hire Heroes web site as well as DoL's web site.
In his opening remarks, Ortiz noted that the Labor Dept had "repurposed approximately $5.4 million of our 2012 Project Year Budget in order to implement the provisions of the VOW Act."  This statement in passing led to the first question.
Chair Jeff Miller:  I was just asking staff a question.  You talk about repurposing five-plus million dollars to assist.  Was it not funded properly in the legislation?  Where's the money that the legislation appropriated?  Just trying to figure out why would you need additional -- to repurpose additional money?
Kathy Tran:  There were several provisions that did not have -- that appropriated funds were not included in.  So for example, the section 222 study on equivalency is one example.
Ortiz had indicated Kathy Tran should speak to the question.  She did.  But it wasn't really clear.  The Chair would say he was still trying to figure out this money issue and that this was paid for in the legislation but then he would note that people behind Tran were shaking their heads "no" on that last part.
So let's delve into that.  Tran's referring to the fact that the legislation required the Dept of Labor to identify skill equivlance between military and civilian employment.  Was this fully funded?  That's one of the questions I asked when I went to the Dept of Labor today.  No, it wasn't funded at all, I was told, and the Labor Dept had to take from their budget for it.    In addition to the five million budgeted, more money will likely be spent on this because the study is not yet completed -- and, again, the legislation requires this study take place.  The Labor Dept is hoping to piggybag on a DoD study.  If they're able to, that would reduce the cost.
In addition to wanting to know if the study was funded, Chair Miller also wanted to know what happened in this program -- limited to 99,000 -- if someone signed up, was accepted and ended up having to drop out due to some reason.
Chair Jeff Miller: What happens if a veteran enters the program and he drops out?  Is that counted a "used slot"?  Or, if there's still funding left, can that be reallocated to another veteran?
Allison Hickey:  Chairman Miller, we have been -- We have been instructed that, uh, that it works similar to the other Mongtogmery GI Bill and other GI bills and when that veteran drops then that authority drops in the 99,000 that are available. 
Chair Jeff Miller: Drops in or?
Allison Hickey:  So if the veteran -- I apologize, Mr. Chairman, let me be a little more clear about that. If the veteran applies and then doesn't fulfill the whole year's worth of training and let's say they stop mid-pointm  then that is one of the 99,000 and we cannot recycle the rest of that benefit on to a different veteran.
Chair Jeff Miller:  Is that right?
Allison Hickey:  Sir, I think that's the provision of the law that has been laid out for us so that's the way we're working it.
Chair Jeff Miller: Sounds like the provision needs to be corrected, doesn't it?  Would you recommend that that slot be re-allocated?
Allison Hickey:  Chairman Miller, from my perspective, from the advocacy that we have in VA for all veterans, we would certainly like to see every dollar that you all have put towards this be used to train veterans so if you are inclined to do something different in the legislation, we would be happy to consider that.
Chair Jeff Miller: That's a great political answer. [Laughter.]  I appreciate that.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill is one of the pieces of legislation that was passed during the current wars.  The first fall semester checks for that legislation, in fact, didn't go out until the fall of 2009 (and many waited much longer than that to receive their checks, but that's another story).  The retraining opportunities offered by the VOW to Hire Heroes Act was an issue Representative Mike Michaud wanted to explore and he wanted to delve into job training, not just academic training. 
US House Rep Mike Michaud:  I have a couple of questions.  The first is I've heard from a couple of small towns and cities  and county government, the fact that they're looking for fire fighters as well as police officers and when you look at the unemployed in the military -- particularly for the military police --  they'd like to hire veterans.  Under the VOW Act, what are you doing to help encourage municipal towns for police officers and what's available to them?  And that's my first question.  My second question is, having done several manufacturing tours throughout my district over the past year, one of the things I hear a lot from businesses is that they would like to hire more employees but they found that they're not trained.  When you look at the extension patnership program, the MOST Program, I don't know if you're familiar with it?  It stands for Mobile Outreach Skill Training, it made it's MEP, they go into these businesses and actually are willing to train and they guarantee a job after training or else they do not get paid for the training.  Are you working with extension partnership programs throughout the country in that regard since they do guarantee jobs?  And do you have the resources needed?  So i guess both of you or who wants to answer both of those questions?
Ismael Ortiz: Congressman, first of all -- Let's -- I want to hit your first question first, sir.  Fire fighters and police officers are on a high demand list so as far as VRAP is concerned, this is an opportunity for them to be able to go in there if they meet the elegiblity requirements, sir.  On the second part of that, sir, if they don't, we also have local veterans employment representatives in each one of the One-Stop Centers our LVERs [Local Veterans Employment Representatives] who go outreach and make sure  and talk to different employers and places to help them find the skilled person that they're looking for.  So our One-Stops are a very important piece of getting that outreach part and also local communities, that is the biggest piece of what we are talking about, working with the communities as much as possible to get that information to us so that way we can find the proper individuals to help them fill their needs.
US House Rep Mike Michaud:  And what type of a benefit will a local community receive since they are tax exempt?  Is there any specific training piece or is there any other benefit under the VOW Act that will be beneficial for the communities?
Ismael Ortiz:  Actually sir -- You know what, I'm not really sure on the specifics on that, sir.  But I'll be more than happy to find out.
US House Rep Mike Michaud:  Okay.
Allison Hickey:  Congress Michaud, let me just tell you how we have generally worked with the education programs in relation to this -- especially the non-degree programs which we started thanks to this Committee and the Senate Veterans Committee's support from the first of October of last year when we were allowed to use GI Bill benefits towards non-degree efforts.  We still require your state approving agency to certify the training.  And if you have on in everyone of the states, I would highly recommend that the counties contact the state approving agencies and submit their training program to them and let them go through their normal process, certify it and then I can -- I can cover them under GI Bill or VRAP for either one.
Ismael Ortiz:   As far as the MOST, sir, the MOST Program, I'm going to turn it over to Ms. Kathy Tran.  She works specifically on those issues.
Kathy Tran:  Sir, regarding our partnership.  We have a federal partnership with the US Dept of Commerce and the MEP Program and we have been encouraging local partnerships in communities and regions across the country to partner between the workforce system and MEPs in order to support employment in the manufacturing arena.  And we actually issued a training guidance letter  or notice -- I can't remember which one, we can get back to you on that -- recently to encourage those partnerships and that letter included examples of existing successful partnerships at various different levels whether it be working with MEPs  on layoff aversion strategies or working with MEPs to help fulfill, you know, job openings and training.  But also just to add to the question earlier, One Stop Career Centers are available to help local muncipalities in their hiring so they can work to help do recruitment, to do job screening, to do post job openings and so that is a good relationship between the One Stop Career Centers and those muncipalities.  Many local webs have good representation from their city and county councils and such.
These are highlights from the hearing that I'm choosing because they go to issues that may require further attention.  US House Rep Jerry McNerney raised a very important issue in his questioning.  It needed to be explored further but was instead dismissed.
US House Rep Jerry McNerney:  I don't think the VA is doing enough to outreach, I don't think just for this program, there seems to be a reluctance to go to the media, to advertise on TV, to put up billboards.  I'd like to see the VA do more of that, in general.  Especially in this case.
Allison Hickey:  Congressman, I appreciate your comments and your questions.  I will say that we have been to the media quite extensively, in the print media and have gotten it out that way, quite extensively. The -- I don't know about billboards except to say that we have a lot of veterans in many, many communities and it would be difficult to figure out the expense associated with a billboard in a single community.  We would start to, I think,
create some discussion around funding that would be a little bit untenable.  We have been online.  I have literally done, as has the Secretary done on camera interviews about veteran employment issues and about the opportunity for education to help those employment opportunities. And I know that Secretary Ortiz' Secretary [Hilda Solis] has done that as well so I will let him comment further on that but we have reached out quite extensively through lots of media different environments including 75 newspapers nationwide for those communities where veterans -- the unemployment rate for veterans is the most -- is the highest.  We're not stopping.
US House Rep Jerry McNerney:   So what kind of budget does the VA have for media outreach.
Allison Hickey:  Well Congressman McNerney, we are -- We are actually trying to be good stewards here.  So we are leveraging our current network operation, we are leveraging the good will of communities and newspapers and others to get this word out as well including all the military alumni groups, all the -- the Military Times are carrying this for free, many of the local newspapers are carrying this for free --
US House Rep Jerry McNerney:  So in other words, you don't have a budget specifically for outreach?
Allison Hickey:  Congresmman McNerney, I've not found the need at this point in time especially when, in very short order, we have over 12,000 applicants and they're growing every single day.  Yesterday, it was 11,000 as the Chairman well noted, today it's twelve.  If in fact we do require, I will be happy to come and share that need with you.
First, "Military Times" -- that's a publication.  Elsewhere, she noted them as well as Air Force Times, Federal Times, Marine Corps Times, Army Times and Navy Times.  I want to be sure they get their credit.  The Philadelphia Inquirer was mentioned elsewhere in the hearing as was USA Today, the Fayetteville Observer, the San Antonio Express News and the  Wall St. Journal.  Those newspapers had all run the VA's notice and run it for free.  They deserve credit and praise for their public service. 
But McNerney is correct, there should be a budget.  If he had more time, it would have been interesting if Hickey could have answered how many turned them down?  Or how many people they had to speak to at the Wall St. Journal?  And how much time was used on this?
My point here is that just because the VA did not spend money paying for advertisement, money was still spent in that staff had to call around.  And I'm sure they got rejections.  I'm also sure they got, "This is great but you need to speak to ___."  So how much time was used?
There should be a budget and I don't think the VA has staff that can afford additional duties.  The backlog at the VA is so huge -- backlog on claims processing (but really backlog on anything) -- that I don't understand how they're able to work on this and claim money was saved.

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