Opinion

New VA Secretary Should Start With the Basics: Employment and Education

Many have experienced apprehension, uncertainty and fear from the pandemic and its economic fallout, but there is one section of the population for which these feelings are especially acute: military veterans. Every year, 200,000 service members transition from the military to civilian life.

As someone who works with veterans every day and watched her mother transition from military to civilian life, I know that veterans have a tremendous drive to engage in meaningful work, not only to support themselves and their families, but also contribute to a larger mission. Yet a third are underemployed or are in positions that do not maximize their skills. Among a sample of veterans with undergraduate degrees on LinkedIn, veterans were recruited at higher rates than they were hired. In other words, veterans were pursued more than civilian counterparts but less likely to obtain employment.

It is time to shift from problem-focused response to sustainable support that truly recognizes the unique value and perspective of veterans entering the workforce. The Biden administration —especially Denis McDonough, the recently confirmed secretary for the Department of Veterans Affairs — should support data-driven services that cater to diverse veterans in a time of economic turmoil.

Employment should be one of the primary areas of focus, as it is a cornerstone for successful reintegration into civilian life. Employment can help veterans engage with their communities and feel a sense of purpose, not to mention provide a source of accomplishment, challenge and satisfaction. But simple hiring targets do not address the pervasive military-civilian divide that likely has a direct impact on veteran underemployment.

Veterans need comprehensive support to transition into a world where they must — many for the first time — put together a resume that translates their military service into a civilian skillset, figure out how to find and apply for jobs, interview and obtain employment. Veterans entering the civilian workforce are leaving a closed ecosystem where their employer provided comprehensive stability in terms of income, benefits, housing, health care and employment, and they are expected to adjust to a very different work environment than they are used to.

While the 2017 HIRE Vets Act outlines criteria for employers to be recognized as accommodating veterans, it does little more than offer a feel-good checklist. It is not a comprehensive approach to reintegration, it does not address the military-civilian divide and it does little to increase veteran cultural competency among all employees.

One way of bridging this divide is Veteran Supportive Supervisor Training. Based on a five-year research project to support Oregon veterans, this approach is designed to increase well-being and ease transition of veterans to civilian workplaces. The training targets supervisor behaviors and interpersonal skills to help them be more supportive to veterans. For example, studies suggest that, particularly at early career stages, veterans are more satisfied with their jobs when they have clarity about their role and where it fits in the organization’s larger mission.

When researchers evaluated the training, they found it had increased supervisors’ positive attitudes toward their veteran employees. Even more notable, when supervisors had more positive attitudes toward veterans even before the training, the training’s impact went beyond supervisor attitude and improved veteran employees’ sleep and stress levels.

Education is another area of focus for successful reintegration. The GI Bill offers veterans the chance to generate higher income, refine their skills and facilitate a career shift from the military to the civilian sector. But again, access is not enough. Veteran students are often in courses with younger peers and learning content that’s disconnected from their highly skilled experiences and the realities they know of the world.

When my mom retired from the Army, education and the GI Bill was not on her radar. But as she saw me enter college and receive the University Of Illinois Children Of Veterans Tuition Waiver, she didn’t want to leave any benefits on the table. She started attending the local community college while also working both a full-time and part-time job. Even though community colleges are known for better serving nontraditional students, she still had to persistently manage her GI Bill benefits with minimal assistance from staff, navigate new online classrooms and translate the skills the military had instilled in her to a civilian learning environment.

While my mom was ultimately able to use a benefit that she had earned during her military service to obtain a degree that helped her move forward in her career, it should not have been so difficult.

Again, we know how to do it better. A federal initiative called VITAL, the Veterans Integration to Academic Leadership program, is embedded within some universities to offer more student veterans comprehensive VA support across multiple areas — mental health, benefits navigation and even finding fostering a community for veteran students. The Biden administration should bolster VITAL by increasing VA funding of positions embedded in the community and prompting institutions who receive federal funds for veteran education to promote veteran cultural competency and student veteran integration.

The United States has come a long way in serving veterans. But it can do much more to help them take their military skills and experiences and thrive in civilian life. Veterans are a diverse and skilled group, and they deserve to be set up for success.

 

Brianna Werner, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist at the Road Home Program at Rush University Medical Center and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.

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