On November 21, 2011, President Obama signed into law the Vow to Hire Heroes Act of 2011. This legislation was a massive victory for Veterans, and was unanimously passed in the House and the Senate. The law provides tax incentives for employers who hire veterans, as well as transition assistance and employment development programs for current and former service members. Press coverage of the historic event was massive; major media outlets reported on the event, and veterans’ advocacy groups produced celebratory press releases.
The timing of the legislation could not have come at a better time, with thousands of troops returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, thousands more leaving active duty over the next several years, and an unstable job market; effective transition and career services are an imperative step to gainful employment of veterans. Unemployment amongst California veterans is an issue worth mentioning; the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America report that the state has a 20% unemployment rate for veterans, the second worst rate in the nation. Southern California is specifically impacted; Los Angeles and San Diego have the 2nd and 3rd largest communities of veterans in the United States, respectively.
The new law included a phased implementation of its various programs. The initial focus of the program roll-out was on younger veterans preparing to leave the military and those who had served in recent conflicts. The Veterans Retraining Assistance Program (VRAP) shifted this focus to older veterans, between the ages of 35 and 60, who are unemployed, do not qualify for any other VA educational benefits, and wish to participate in job retraining. The 1.6 billion dollar program provides a monthly living stipend of $1473(maximum) for 12 months to eligible veterans while they learn skills in “high demand occupations” at a technical or community college.
The program application was released in the Veterans Affairs ebenefits portal on May 1 and operates on a first-come, first-served basis. If veterans do not qualify for VRAP, they are connected with a Benefits Coordinator who will help to identify programs for which they do qualify. A May 31 VA press release touted the benefits of the program and expressed the need to disseminate information to eligible individuals. The agency encouraged a “sustained effort to reach potential VRAP applicants.” Despite this statement, the VA has not launched a paid advertising campaign, nor have any Southern California media outlets covered the roll-out of VRAP. This lack of outreach is an unfortunate misstep in program implementation, particularly in San Diego which is home to an estimated 238,985 veterans.
The first round of 55,000 VRAP disbursements begins on July 1, and in October another 54,000 will become available. Media outreach should not be limited to press releases published on the VA website. It is imperative that local media outlets provide wide-spread coverage of a program that could be immediately and highly impactful for our region’s veterans.
Veterans interested in VRAP can visit: http://www.benefits.va.gov/vow/