Vets deserve employment help


by Editorial

Many Montanans will spend this Memorial Day shopping, gathering with friends and family, or just plain relaxing – all fine ways to spend an extra day off of work, if you have it. But for too many veterans, Memorial Day is not just another day off of work – because they do not have any job to return to when the day is over.

That is something to think about as we reflect on the sacrifices made by countless Americans who have fought for this country. Memorial Day is a day to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice – who gave their lives so that we could live in freedom. It is also a day to acknowledge the debt we owe to all those who have offered their lives in service to this nation.

One small way we can begin to pay back this enormous debt is to do everything we can to help returning veterans make a smooth, successful transition back to civilian life. And here, there is much room for improvement.

For instance, for young veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the unemployment rate tops 15 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Other sources put this number as high as 27 percent. In comparison, the nation's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate hovered at about 9 percent at last count.

There are several reasons the rate is higher among these returning soldiers, including the fact that many of them opt to use G.I. Bill benefits to pursue higher education, while others are biding their time until their next deployment. Some are living with a mental illness or disability as a result of their service, and need extra support in order to find a good-fitting civilian career.

Whatever the reasons, the fact remains that the unemployment rate for these veterans is climbing, and in fact is currently at its highest point in five years.

In an effort to tackle this trend head-on, this month 12 U.S. Senators joined to cosponsor a bill called the Hiring Heroes Act of 2011. The bipartisan bill, whose primary sponsor is U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., aims to lower the unemployment rate among veterans by providing them with special certification and job skills training. And it would reform federal hiring practices so that soldiers who land a government job can start work as soon as their service ends.

Montanans in particular can cheer the news that both of Montana's senators – Jon Tester, a member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, and Max Baucus – are among the bill's cosponsors. Tester, in fact, announced that he was moved to introduce the bill after learning about the struggle of a former U.S. army captain from Great Falls.

Nathan Wiens earned a civil engineering degree from Montana State University, which he attended thanks to an ROTC scholarship. He then worked as an engineer officer for the U.S. Army for nearly five years. According to Tester's office, that work included time in Iraq scouting roads for homemade bombs known as improvised explosive devices.

But when he returned to Montana, Wiens found that his training and experience did not fit the technical requirements for certification by the Montana Board of Professional Engineers.

"When I got my engineering degree through ROTC at MSU and then served in the Army for five years, I never imagined that I would have a hard time becoming a professional engineer in Montana," Wiens said in a prepared statement released through Tester's office. "I asked for Senator Tester's help and now he is introducing a bill to fix this problem. I appreciate his leadership and his strong support for veterans like me."

The Hiring Heroes Act would direct the federal government to create an employment skills certification system that would help veterans obtain the necessary qualifications for certain jobs, and this system would be administered under the Transition Assistance Program run jointly by the departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs, Transportation and Labor.

"We have a responsibility to empower America's veterans with the tools they need to find good-paying jobs after they put their lives on the line for our freedoms," Tester said in his own prepared statement. "This legislation eases the transition between military service and the civilian work force, setting Montana's veterans up for success. They deserve no less."

The bottom line is that every veteran who wants to be employed, should be. Providing the tools and support these former soldiers need to land good-paying jobs is the least we can do for those who have done so much for us.