(Washington, D.C.) – Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray delivered the following speech on efforts to improve veterans employment through public-private partnerships. Murray, Chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, delivered the remarks in front of a gathering of national business leaders and veterans seeking employment. The event, which was sponsored by GE and included members of the National Chamber of Commerce, included a workshop for veterans seeking employment.
Senator Murray is the author and sponsor of the VOW to Hire Heroes Act which was signed into law last November and provides a comprehensive approach to improving veterans hiring.
Senator Murray’s full remarks follow:
“Thank you Jean for that kind introduction. I also want to thank GE for putting this wonderful, and critically important, event together. And for the tremendous commitment that they have reaffirmed today to hire our nation’s returning veterans.
“You know, this gathering today of business leaders, the Chamber of Commerce, veterans in need of work, and Congressional leaders could not come at a more pivotal moment for our nation’s veterans. As Secretary Shinseki no doubt discussed, we are facing a tremendous influx of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan with new and unique needs, and I want to commend him for putting out a budget on Monday that reflects that reality.
“But while the needs are often new with more women veterans, more complex medical devices and technology, and more understanding of the invisible wounds of war. The moment is not.
“Today, we stand at a cross roads our nation has stood at before.
“We are at the end of a conflict that was bruising, but one that also reaffirmed the courage and strength of our service members. We are at a point where we as a nation have to come together to really examine what every single one of us can, and has, been doing to aid those who were asked to make the sacrifices.
“It’s a moment that in the past we as a nation have responded to well – such as in the era that built the greatest generation. And one where we as a nation have stumbled – as in the aftermath of Vietnam when far too many veterans slipped through the cracks.
“But it’s those moments that must our guide our work today.
“I can certainly say that they guide my own work as Chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. And that’s because those pivotal moments played such an important role in my own life.
“As many of you may know, my father was a World War II veteran who was one of the first to storm the beaches of Okinawa. I can remember as a little kid the reverence those in my little town of Bothell, Washington had for his service.
“The way he was treated – not just by neighbors and community members – but also by the federal government – that provided him with a GI bill. And that was there with worker training programs for my mom many years later when he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and could no longer work. And that helped him and his fellow veterans prosper.
“But my experience with those returning from war was much different decades later when as a college senior I volunteered at the psychiatric ward of the Seattle VA at a time when veterans were coming home with the invisible wounds of war which they didn’t yet call PTSD.
“I can remember the faces of the veterans, many of whom were even younger than me, who were being told they were shell shocked. I can also remember – like many of you – the lack of answers during that period. The feeling that we were not a nation firmly at the back of those who had served. The feeling that as a nation we were quickly turning the page on that war - and those who fought it.
“Those moments have taught us.
“And one of the most important things they have taught us is how critically important it is for us to partner with the common purpose of supporting our veterans between the private and public sector. And nowhere is that more true than in the effort to find our veterans good, stable employment.
“Now I know that finding work today is a problem our veterans face along with nearly 13 million other Americans…..but for our veterans many of the barriers to employment are unique. That’s because for those who have worn our nation’s uniform - and particularly for those young veterans who have spent the last decade being shuttled back and forth to war zones half a world away:
“The road home isn’t always smooth, the red tape is often long, and the transition from the battlefield to the work place is never easy.
“Too often our veterans are being left behind by their peers who didn’t make the same sacrifices - who spent their early careers in internships or apprenticeships. Too often our veterans don’t realize that their time in the military provided them with similar skills both tangible and intangible that give them tremendous value in the workplace. And too often they are discouraged by a job market that is unfamiliar to them after their service.
“But as all those here today who know the character and experiences of our veterans understand, this shouldn’t be the case. Our veterans have the leadership ability, discipline, and technical skills to not only find work, but to excel in the workforce of the 21st century.
“But despite that being the case – the statistics have continued to paint a grim picture. According to the Department of Labor, young veterans between the ages of 18 and 24 have an unemployment rate that is over 20%. That is one in five of our nation’s heroes who can’t find a job to support their family, don’t have an income that provides stability, and don’t have work that provides them with the self-esteem and pride that is so critical to their transition home.
“And so the question becomes: How could this be?
“How could these young men and women who have performed so admirably, who know how to lead and know how to get a job done be struggling so mightily?
“Well over the last few years, that’s the question that I set out to answer in preparing my bill to overhaul veterans employment efforts on the federal level. And it’s a question that I knew I had to get answered first-hand from those veterans struggling to find work like the veterans with us today.
“So I spent a longtime crisscrossing my home state, which as many of you know has a tremendous number of young veterans – and I visited worker retraining programs, VA facilities, and more than a few veterans’ halls. And in discussion after discussion – I heard from veterans about the roadblocks they face.
“What I heard was heartbreaking and frustrating.
“I heard from veterans who said they no longer write that they’re a veteran on their resume because of the stigma they believe employers attach to the invisible wounds of war. I heard from medics who returned home from treating battlefield wounds and couldn’t get certifications to be an EMT or to drive an ambulance. I spoke with veterans who said that many employers had trouble understanding the vernacular they used to describe their experiences in an interview or on a resume. I talked to veterans who told me that the military spent incalculable hours getting them the skills to do their job in the field, but little time teaching them how to translate those skills into the workplace.
“The problems were sometimes complicated and sometimes simple. Most importantly though, they were preventable.
“But strangely, when I relayed the concerns of my home state’s unemployed veterans to some back here in the other Washington for solutions, none came.
“What did become clear is that for too long we have invested billions of dollars in training our young men and women with skills to protect our nation - only to ignore them once they leave the military. For too long, at the end of their career we patted our veterans on the back for their service and then pushed them out into the job market alone.
“So in May of last year, I introduced a bipartisan veterans employment bill that takes the challenges I heard and translates them into solutions to ease the transition from the battlefield to the working world.
“For the very first time, my bill required broad job skills training for every service member as they leave the military as part of the military’s Transition Assistance Program. It allowed service members to begin the federal employment process prior to separation in order to facilitate a truly seamless transition from the military to jobs in government. And it required the Department of Labor to take a hard look at what military skills and training should be translatable into the civilian sector in order to make it simpler for our veterans to get the licenses and certifications they need.
“All of these are real, substantial steps to put our veterans to work.
“And late this year they were combined with a tax credit for employers that hire veterans and help to train older veterans for in-demand jobs in the VOW to Hire Heroes Act. And I’m so pleased to note that late last year I joined with Secretary Shinseki - right next to President Obama when he signed my bill into law.
“But while that bill is a critical first step – it should only be that: a first step. The next step is why I’m here today – to help continue or work of building partnerships with you – the business leaders who know our military community better than anyone.
“Now, I do have to mention, you are already ahead of the curve. The Chamber of Commerce, working with companies like GE on the Hiring our Heroes initiative, has lead the way on veterans hiring. But we all know that more can be done by businesses large and small across the country.
“We can better utilize our workforce training system to get veterans the skills they need to fill the jobs that are open in their areas. We can build upon the relationships we have across the country with community colleges and universities.
“But in the here and now, we also need to spread the word on what all businesses can do to help. So, as I do whenever I’m given the opportunity to stand in front of so many big wigs that make the hiring decisions, I need to make my pitch.
“And I don’t want to just encourage you to hire veterans –because I know many of you are already doing that – I also want to pass along the things that are working to sustain veterans hiring so that you can pass it along.
“First, please help to get the word out to companies to educate their human resources teams about the importance of hiring veterans and how skills learned in the military translate to the work a company does. I can’t tell you how often I hear from veterans who tell me that the terms they use in interviews and in resumes fail to get through to interviewers.
“Second, please help companies provide job training and resources for transitioning service members. This is something I’ve seen done at large organizations like Amazon and Microsoft but also at smaller companies in conjunction with local colleges. In fact, the most successful of these programs capitalize on skills developed during military service and on the job training.
“Third, let business leaders know how important it is to publicize job openings with Veterans Service Organizations and at local military bases to help connect veterans with jobs;
“Fourth, develop an internal veterans group within your company to mentor recently discharged veterans,
“And finally, if you can, please reach out to local community colleges and universities to help develop a pipeline of the many, many veterans that are using GI bill benefits to gain employment in your particular area.
“If we can spread the message on just a few of these steps, I’m confident that we will be able to continue to build on the success you all have had in hiring veterans.
“But there’s one other – even more important thing you can help get the word out on. And that’s the often difficult issue of the invisible wounds of war some potential employees face.
“As I mentioned earlier, I have heard repeatedly from veterans that they do not put their military service on resumes because they fear it stigmatizes them. They fear that those who have not served see them all as damaged, or unstable.
“We must understand what mental health challenges are, and what they are not.
“As we seek to employ more veterans, we need future bosses and coworkers to understand that issues like PTSD or depression are natural responses to some of the most stressful events a person can experience. We need them to understand that these illnesses do not afflict every veteran.
“And most importantly, we need them to understand that for those who are affected by these illnesses they can get help, they can get better, and they can get back into their lives.
“I know GE is doing good work in this area. But we need to let businesses know that if they have a veteran who is facing some challenges, please, do the right thing and encourage him or her get help and get back to their lives.
“They need to know it is okay to reach out. Help them take advantage of the excellent mental health care that I know Secretary Shinseki and VA are capable of providing.
“The veteran will be better, and they will be an even stronger member of your team.
“You know, our veterans don’t ask for a lot. Often times they come home and don’t even acknowledge their own sacrifices.
“My own father never talked about his time fighting.
“In fact, I never saw his Purple Heart, or knew that he had a wallet with shrapnel in it, or a diary that detailed his time in combat until after he had died and my family gathered to sort through his belongings.
“But our veterans shouldn’t have to ask. We should know to provide for them.
“When my father’s generation came home from the war –they came home to opportunity. My father came home to a community that supported him. He came home to college, then to a job. A job that gave him pride. A job that helped him start a family. And one that ultimately led to me starting my own.
“That’s the legacy of opportunity we have to live up to for today’s veterans. And it’s one that we can only deliver on if we work together.
“You know, it’s no secret that here in Washington D.C. we are sharply divided on any number of economic and political issues facing average Americans right now.
“But this is one issue we are rarely divided on. It unites even the most unlikely partners, even Speaker Boehner and I, because we realize that:
“We have all made a promise to those who have signed up to serve. And we all need to keep it because so much is on the line. Because we are once again at that defining moment in how we treat our veterans. And the truth is that we stand perilously close to repeating some of the same mistakes of the past.
“But we don’t have to. There is a sea of good will in this country. Non-profits, community leaders, and companies like GE who don’t just talk about helping – who actually roll up their sleeves and do it.
“Let’s continue to take advantage of that support. Let’s work together to ensure that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past. Let’s make sure that at this crossroads for our nation’s veterans we come together as a nation to help them down the path of opportunity.
“Thank you for inviting me to join you today. I look forward to continuing this work together will all of you.”