GAO studies joblessness among veterans at request of Tester, Baucus

Billings Gazette

by Cindy Uken

At 20.1 percent, Montana has the fourth-highest unemployment rate among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in the nation, behind Michigan, Indiana and Minnesota.

The state, home to the second-largest population of veterans per capita in the country, is a microcosm of the national picture of unemployment among veterans. For September, the unemployment rate for veterans of all generations was 8.1 percent, up from 7.7 percent in August, according to the Labor Department’s October unemployment report.

For veterans separated from the service since Sept. 11, 2001, the jobless rate for September was 11.7 percent, a spike from 9.8 percent in August, according to the report.

The picture is only expected to grow worse as nearly 40,000 U.S. service members are set to pull out of Iraq by year’s end.

It is no coincidence then that the U.S. Government Accountability Office has chosen now to produce a report examining federal jobs programs for veterans in an effort to better serve vets and ensure the most efficient use of taxpayer dollars. The report is a direct response to a request from Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, both D-Mont., first issued in February, GAO leaders confirmed.

The GAO is an independent, nonpartisan agency that works for Congress. Often called the “congressional watchdog,” the GAO investigates how the federal government spends taxpayer dollars. The number of congressional requests is so voluminous that the GAO cannot accommodate them all.

“Certainly this is an area of importance,” said Andrew Sherrill, director of the GAO’s Education, Workforce and Income Security Team.

Baucus and Tester were the only two members of the U.S. Senate to seek such a veteran-centered study, Sherrill said.

The federal government operates a wide array of programs to help veterans find work. These efforts span a number of federal departments and branches of the military, but the staggering unemployment figures among veterans make it clear that the programs can be improved, the senators say.

“It’s clear something isn’t working, and we’ve got to fix it — both for Montana veterans who deserve good-paying jobs and Montana taxpayers who deserve to know their money is being well spent,” Baucus said.

This report will help build on what’s working and get rid of what isn’t, so we can cut bureaucracy and increase jobs for our veterans, Baucus said.

Baucus and Tester, the state’s only member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, have implored the GAO to examine which programs work best, how programs can be consolidated and coordinated to provide better service and reduce red tape, and what legislative measures would help connect more veterans with good-paying jobs.

“Part of our promise to veterans is making sure that they return home to good job opportunities and rewarding careers that only expand their strengths and skills,” Tester said. “We still have a lot of work to do, especially with men and women coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan. This report will give us a clearer picture of how to address this unacceptable problem, because we need solutions now.”

The GAO is setting up interviews with the various veterans’ service organizations, workforce and employers’ groups. It is finalizing its approach and expects interviews to start next week. The study is expected to take about nine months and be completed in 2012.