NEW YORK -- As Congress remains at a loggerheads over how to reform the nation's signature jobs training program, a new opportunity being offered only to unemployed veterans seems to have confirmed one thing: there is a desperate hunger for job training during one of the worst periods of extended unemployment since the Great Depression.
The initiative, called the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program, has already enrolled some 39,000 former servicemembers. VA officials predict they will fill all of the 45,000 spots available before Sept. 30, when another fiscal year starts and 54,000 more slots open up. The program is meant to help middle-aged veterans who have exhausted their GI benefits.
"The largest populations of veterans that are unemployed are between the ages of 35 and 60, so this is a great opportunity for a veteran out there who is unemployed to basically jump-start their career," said Curtis Coy, the deputy undersecretary for economic opportunity at the Veterans Benefits Administration.
Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and the major Republican mover behind the bipartisan bill that created VRAP, the VOW to Hire Heroes Act, praised the program's progress thus far in a statement, saying he was "heartened."
"I have seen everything from Veterans Service Organizations to local non-profit groups -- especially those who focus on veterans -- across the nation promoting this initiative and helping veterans apply for one of the 99,000 available slots," Miller said. "I think the goal of giving veterans the opportunity to renew their skills is on track."
The program's success in attracting veterans is a testament to the 752,000 former servicemen and women who are unemployed, a rate of about 6.9 percent compared to the general population rate of 8.3 percent. But it is also a sign of the general hunger among all the unemployed, civilian and ex-military alike, to retrain themselves in a new economic era. Across the country, community colleges and vocational programs are reporting record enrollments, even as students struggle to pay for school.
VRAP "can cover those costs, so it's a wonderful wonderful opportunity for those unemployed," said Coy. Veterans in the program will soon receive up to $1,500 per month towards an associate degree or training in quickly-growing professions. Since the program targets veterans who may have been out of the service for many years, points of entry to learn more or apply for the program include not just the VA but also local unemployment offices.
But there is at least one catch: VRAP will only cover school for 12 months. Workforce development experts say the most successful retraining programs generally are those that offer longer, more in-depth training.
The average age of participants thus far is 49. Some of the most popular fields of study so far, according to the VA, include computer support, heating and air conditioning repair, business support, culinary arts, nursing, and paralegal assistance.
One unexpectedly popular career choice: substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselor.
"Veterans tend to want to take care and help other veterans and provide a service to their community and their country," Coy said. "So on the one hand it is a little surprising, but on the other hand it's not."
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