Thousands of unemployed, middle-age veterans are getting a chance to start over under a special GI Bill designed to train them for new careers.
Concerned about the high long-term jobless rate and growing homelessness among older veterans struggling to find work in the weak economy, the federal government is paying them to go back to school for a year so they can compete for high-demand jobs.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is targeting former military personnel often decades removed from service, and who are no longer eligible for other benefits, with the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program, or VRAP.
The program's goal is to get an estimated 100,000 vets who lost jobs during the recession and who lack skills for the new high-tech economy back into the workforce.
Starting this month, the program will pay $1,473 each month to cover education costs for an associate degree or certification at a community college or technical school for 211 high-demand positions such as legal assistants, chemical technicians, nurses and truck drivers.
Jesus Arrieta, state veterans manager for the Arizona Department of Economic Security, said the economic downturn hit veterans hard, with the number living on the streets rising.
"It's happening; our veterans are hitting the streets," Arrieta said. This year's annual StandDown event in Phoenix to aid homeless veterans drew 1,100, up from 750 in 2011.
The state's veterans unemployment rate was 7.5 percent in 2011, which is in line with the national rate.
The program is open to unemployed veterans age 35 to 60 who are not in state or federal job-training programs and who are not eligible for other education benefits, such as the Montgomery or Post-9/11 GI bills. Members of that group, which represents the majority of unemployed veterans and includes some who fought in Vietnam and the first Gulf War, typically have used up their GI Bill benefits and are not covered by other VA programs.
Arrieta believes the program will get vets back to work fast as it concentrates on career education and not a higher academic degree. Most veterans, he said, want to simply go out and find work and don't necessarily think of how going back to school will help them. Under VRAP, applicants need to plan what school to attend, which career to pursue, and then go through the training to find a job.
"They have to prepare, prepare, prepare to rejoin the workforce," Arrieta said.
There are 14,000 unemployed veterans registered with DES, of which 13,373 are between 35 and 60. Arrieta said he has discussed VRAP with more than 500 veterans, and at least 167 have enrolled since May.
It's unclear how many Arizona veterans qualify for the program, but the state has 457,600 Vietnam, Gulf War and peacetime veterans, many of whom could potentially fit the requirements, according to Mike Klier, an assistant deputy director for veteran benefits with the Arizona Department of Veterans' Services.
"From that standpoint, Arizona has a pretty big number of veterans that could apply for this assistance," Klier said.
Travis Schulte, a program project specialist over veteran employment with the department, said those who will take advantage of VRAP will predominantly be pre-9/11 veterans.
Schulte said this is the first program "addressing the need of veterans who are generally unemployed longer." Much like their civilian counterparts, these older veterans often don't have the training required by the new, higher-tech economy and have a hard time finding jobs.
Other programs are designed to help younger, recently discharged veterans transfer their military skills into civilian jobs. VRAP will help veterans caught in the trap of having made that transition but are unemployed because of the recession and have no other marketable skills, Schulte said.
"The strength of VRAP is it gives them all new skills," he said.
Schulte said VRAP should apply to any school that already offers training in one of the designated high-demand careers. While the program will pay for the first 12 months of an associate degree, the focus is on shorter training and certificate programs, he said.
"The goal is at the end of 12 months they are out there competing for the jobs they trained for," Schulte said.
VRAP is part of the 2011 Veteran Opportunity to Work (VOW) to Hire Heroes Act, which expanded education, tax credits and transition assistance to veterans.
The two-year program will accept 45,000 applications through Sept. 30 and an additional 54,000 between this Oct. 1 and March 31, 2014. As of July 11, more than 32,000 veterans nationally had applied for the program, with 13,000 of those applications approved by July 2.
Randy Noller, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, said the need for this program is apparent because they are past the halfway mark for applicants already.