Poor economy only one of veterans' problems, Casey says
Business is booming for Al Mercer.
"That's not a good thing when you're providing vital and essential services to at-risk veterans," said Mercer, executive director of the Veterans Leadership Program of Western Pennsylvania. The group provides housing, financial literacy education and job counseling, mostly to an increasing number of unemployed veterans.
The unemployment rate among post-9/11 veterans is 10.9 percent, compared with 8.5 percent unemployment among nonveterans, according to a report issued Tuesday by the Joint Economic Committee, a joint committee of the U.S. House and Senate. Allegheny County is home to more post-9/11 veterans than any county in the state, Mercer said.
A bad economy is only part of their unemployment problem, said U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Scranton, chairman of the joint committee.
"The areas of our economy where they're getting jobs, in a broad sense, are not growing. They're not getting jobs in the health care field or the education field, which are growing," Casey said at Goodwill Southwestern Pennsylvania's Workforce Development Center in Lawrenceville. Governments -- one of the sectors that gives hiring preference to veterans -- are facing budget deficits "and so overall government numbers are down."
Higher-than-average numbers of post-9/11 veterans were employed in industries that were especially hard-hit by the recession, according to the report. Those include mining, construction and manufacturing, among other fields.
The federal programs meant to help vets find jobs, including the Department of Labor's Transition Assistance Program, "are not working the way they ought to," Casey said. He wants an outside audit of the programs every three years. A bill in Congress, which he supports, would require veterans to use the program when they're discharged.
Mercer's group provided 4,800 instances of service to veterans and their families in 2008 -- more than double the workload of 2007. The workload increased 30 percent in each of the two years since, he said.
"When we have a surge overseas, we're going to see that same surge here. The difference is that we're going to see it for decades. We've got 20-year-olds and 30-year-olds that are coming back that are going to live another 50 years, another 60 years," Mercer said. "It's going to cost billions of dollars, and it's going to require a community effort that is integrated and coordinated."
Enter Judy Savolskis. The interim vice president of workforce development at the Community College of Allegheny County oversees several new programs designed to help veterans transition into civilian jobs -- including those in fields like health care, which are growing fastest. The college created a central point of contact for veterans and is creating programs to get vets into Marcellus shale drilling jobs, Savolskis said.
"Jobs is the name of the game," she said.
Pennsylvania has the fourth-largest number of veterans of any state, with 995,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. According to statistics Mercer compiled, Allegheny County's 3,100 Iraq and Afghan war veterans exceed the number for any other county in the state.
"There's no major military infrastructure here. This isn't Fort Bragg, N.C. This is Pittsburgh," Mercer said. Without the military infrastructure, caring for veterans falls to civilian institutions, he said.
"We believe that there is just no more important, purposeful or meaningful work than serving veterans. It's not negotiable. It's not charity. It's our duty; it's our obligation to do so."Additional Information:
Where to get help
If you're a veteran and can't find work, there are local networks that might be able to help:
Veterans Leadership Program
Community College of Allegheny County
Veteran's Service Center
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