By Jim Jones, Thomas R. Kuhn and Tony Earley
As this year’s election season gains momentum, the most recent jobs report reminds Americans that more work remains to be done on getting America back to work.
One group for whom the jobs market has been particularly tough is U.S. servicemen and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and rejoining the workforce. Unemployment rates are as high as 29 percent for young veterans – 65 percent above those for other Americans in the same age groups. With thousands more American soldiers due home this year and next, those numbers could increase.
The fact is good jobs are out there. The energy utility sector alone needs thousands of new skilled craft workers as it ramps up infrastructure investment and as more than a third of its workers become eligible to retire.
The problem for utilities and a number of other industries is a shortage of qualified applicants. In many cases though, the skills and experience they gain in the service make veterans high-potential candidates for these positions. With the added boost of some focused training and assistance, many can transition smoothly into these new roles.
Employers, community colleges, local workforce investment and career training organizations have proven that public-private collaboration can be highly effective at preparing and placing veterans in new positions where their skills are needed. Continued support for public-private partnerships will help transition veterans into civilian jobs.
For example, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Hiring Our Heroes program is working with 1,600 state and local chambers and other strategic partners from the public, private, and non-profit sectors to help veterans and military spouses find employment. Since March 2011, the program has helped more than 10,400 veterans and military spouses get jobs.
Last year, utilities launched a “Troops to Energy Jobs” initiative to tap into this potential. As part of this effort, many utilities, including PG&E’s PowerPathway Bridge to Utility Worker program, are leveraging a broad network involving the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, community colleges, workforce investment boards, employers and others to create targeted job training and placement programs. The PG&E program has graduated over 150 veterans.
In September, the Chamber’s Hiring Our Heroes and the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University will launch a broader initiative called “Fast Track,” which is designed to show the critical paths to meaningful careers in several growth sectors such as energy, healthcare, IT and cyber-security, transportation and infrastructure. “Fast Track” will guide veterans and transitioning service members to make informed decisions about the use of their GI Bill to gain targeted employment opportunities. The program will map the 100 metropolitan areas with the fastest growing job markets and will be populated with the educational and credentialing pathways to good-paying, high-skilled careers.
But for this network model to thrive in the utility industry and others, companies need strong partners with which to work. Unfortunately, that’s a growing challenge in light of the decline in state and local funding available for education and workforce training.
State and local governments need to do everything they can to provide robust funding, and federal efforts play a critical role. Most importantly, community colleges and workforce investment boards need continued federal backing to help fund career and technical education programs.
Making programs more effective will also enhance these public-private partnerships. For example, making grants dependent on more active collaboration with employers and ensuring programs are aligned with employers’ needs would likely increase job-placement success rates. Similarly, we should tie grants more closely to results, setting goals for skills attainment and completion, rather than enrollment.
Instead of the current one-size-fits-all approach, the federal government could also size grants proportionally with each state’s economic contribution, allowing funds to flow to places where they can have a bigger impact.
Other common sense reforms include making education credits fully portable, so that a person who starts a training program in one area does not have to start over if he or she moves to another area – a common scenario for military personnel. Today, that’s not the case.
These and other similar steps should be a priority.
America has a duty to help ensure a bright future for those who have sacrificed for our country. Good job opportunities are out there for our veterans, and companies are eager to tap into their talents. The federal government can help facilitate that future by continuing to support and advance public-private collaboration.
This commentary originally appeared on The Hill, a daily newspaper and website covering Congress.
Gen. Jim Jones (United States Marine Corps, retired) was national security adviser to President Obama from January 2009 to November 2010. Thomas R. Kuhn is president of the Edison Electric Institute. Tony Earley is chairman, CEO and president of PG&E Corporation.