Bill would help vets’ transition

Great Falls Tribune

by Ledge King

WASHINGTON — When Army Capt. Nate Wiens returned to Montana after nearly five years as an engineer in Iraq and elsewhere, he thought his training in a war zone would be prized on the job market.

It wasn’t.

In fact, it didn’t even count when it came to qualifying for an engineering license in his home state, which requires four years of on the- job training.

Wiens was flabbergasted. No one in the military told the Glasgow native — who graduated from Montana State University-Bozeman with a civil engineering degree — that his military service wouldn’t matter in the civilian world. After all, he was overseeing crews as large as 120 people on projects being undertaken in some of the world’s most dangerous corners.

He finally found work about a year ago with Advanced Engineering and Environmental Services in Great Falls. Even so, his lack of professional certification means he can’t be a project manager, produce his own plans or sign off on plan specifications. He will probably have to wait three more years before he can take the test to apply for a license.

“I was pretty frustrated. It just seems like people don’t get it,” Wiens, 31, said of his situation. He said the message it sends is: “Yeah, you went in with an engineering degree, but when you get out, you need to do something else.”

It’s a situation that a bipartisan group of senators, including Montana Democrats Jon Tester and Max Baucus, want to change, especially when more than one in four veterans ages 20 to 24 are out of work, according to the Labor Department.

Wednesday, the senators introduced the Hiring Heroes Act of 2011, which would provide regular job counseling to military personnel before and after they leave the service. It also would require them to attend programs designed to help their transition to the civilian workforce, and give nonprofit organizations federal grants to help with training, mentoring and placement.

Additionally, the bill would direct the departments of Defense, Labor and Veterans Affairs to “eliminate barriers between military training and civilian licensure or credentialing for several military occupational specialties,” according to the office of Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the bill’s chief sponsor.

That would have been helpful to Wiens.

At a Capitol Hill news conference unveiling the legislation, Tester highlighted Wiens’ predicament, calling it a “ridiculous” situation.

“For us folks in Montana, the United States military is a proud tradition, but with that tradition comes our challenge of making sure that we set up all veterans for success after they leave the service,” Tester said.

“We have a responsibility to empower them and give them the tools to be successful.”

Montana has more than 100,000 veterans — and the second highest per-capita rate in the nation, behind Alaska.

“If a soldier serves our country proudly as a medic, they are more than qualified to earn a living as an EMT when that service is over. If a service member can drive sophisticated equipment protecting our country overseas, they shouldn’t have to jump through hoops to get a job as a truck driver here at home,” Baucus said in a statement.

He also is the author of a measure that would give tax credits to employers who hire veterans.

Navy hospital corpsman Eric Smith, who served in Iraq, couldn’t get a job as a certified nursing assistant when he returned to Baltimore because he didn’t have the equivalent civilian certification, despite five years on the job.

“The current system is not equitable, nor is it reflective of a sailor’s value or experience and training,” said Smith, who attended Wednesday’s news conference. “We have fought long and hard — no questions asked. But when we come home, 200,000 of us shouldn’t have to also fight for jobs.”