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Glenn Scott sounds like the typical nontraditional community college student: The 51-year-old recently completed his second semester at Erie Community College (ECC) with a 3.33 grade point average. He is focused on earning an associate degree to help him land a job.
But only two years ago, Scott, an Army veteran, was homeless on the streets of Buffalo, N.Y., battling alcohol addiction. One day, an ECC advertisement on the side of a city bus caught his attention. The college’s slogan read: “Start Here, Go Anywhere.”
Scott soon entered a treatment program, has been sober for more than two years, and is on his way to earn a degree in business/office management. He is also vice president of the Veterans Club at ECC.
It is students like Scott that a new House bill aims to help. ECC President Jack Quinn told Scott’s story on Friday before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, which held a hearing on legislation to improve workforce readiness for military veterans, especially older veterans. Of the nearly 1 million military veterans who are currently unemployed, about 632,000 are 35-64 years old, according to the committee.
Serving older vets
The Veterans Opportunity to Work Act (HR 2433) would provide 12 month of training to veterans age 35-60 who have exhausted their educational and unemployment benefits. Participants would have to enroll full-time and earn an associate degree or certificate in a high-demand field.
Community colleges are crucial to serving all veterans because of their low cost and accessibility, said Quinn, a former congressman who himself served on the House committee. About 40 percent of veterans who use their military education benefits attend a community college, he noted.
Quinn related another story about a local utility company that approached ECC to help train new linemen as a significant portion of its workforce was about to retire. Of the 23 students who completed the program last semester, seven were veterans.
Of the 20,000 students enrolled at ECC, about 1,000 are veterans. Quinn said he expects that number to rise. A growing number of community colleges are creating special programs, centers and services for returning veterans, many of whom struggle with personal issues, Quinn said.
Two-year colleges have also noticed an increase in veterans who are older. Community colleges in Pierce County, Wash.—Bates Technical College, Clover Park Technical College, Tacoma Community College and Pierce College—will be working together with the Plus 50 Initiative and local employers on a special employment expo and job fair for veterans. A large percentage of the veterans in Pierce County are 50 or older. (Plus 50 is an American Association of Community Colleges initiative to help learners age 50 and older acquire skills for new jobs and careers.)
At ECC, officials have tried to streamline the college-entrance process by making registration, financial aid application and class enrollment easier for veterans and others to navigate. It has also reached out to local organizations, such as the local Veterans Affairs hospital, to coordinate services and provide some housing assistance to students who are veterans.
But Quinn said that state budget cuts on campuses are limiting the services colleges can offer to all students, including veterans. The college has already increased tuition by several hundred dollars to help make up the shortfall, but cuts are likely to continue as public funding get tighter.
“When we’re stretched by funding issues, it affects all of our students,” Quinn said.
Several committee members said a top goal of the proposed bill is to match the veterans’ skills with industry needs and to quickly provide them with training for credentials to land jobs. They noted that the certification and licensing process is often duplicative and cumbersome.
Shortening the time-to-credential is possible—especially if students are given credit for related work experience—but there’s often red tape that hampers such efforts, Quinn said.
HR 2433 would direct the departments of Defense and Labor to study 10 military occupation specialties and look for ways to reduce barriers to certification and licensure for transitioning veterans. The issue was also a concern for several organizations testifying at the House hearing.
“Military skills and experience in skilled occupations from air-traffic controller to operating-room specialist to jet pilot are often lost when service members become civilians” because of such licensure barriers, Tom Tarantino, senior legislative associate at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said in prepared remarks.
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