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April 18, 2012

Veterans push to get job credit for military experience

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette — When is a combat medic no longer a skilled medical professional? When is a tank driver no longer qualified to operate heavy equipment? When is a troop division commander too inexperienced to be a security guard at a bank?

When they’re newly minted veterans.

Thanks to the tangled web of licensing and credentialing requirements in all 50 states, when soldiers certified as proficient in a military occupation get their discharge papers, most must start over.

Trucking jobs require a commercial driver’s license, and that usually means going back to school. While the average cost -- about $5,000 -- is covered by the post-9/11 GI Bill, the time and effort can be a deterrent to veterans needing a job immediately.

Fifteen states allow a waiver of the licensing test if the veteran had two years’ experience driving a similar vehicle -- but that’s more challenging than it seems. Military trucks all have automatic transmissions, for example, while many commercial trucks are manual.

Three other states are enacting similar provisions, but eight states have declined to enact the waiver, and 25 others have not indicated their plans.

For Jim Barr, vice president of government relations of Ryder Trucking, a national transportation company, the tank-to-truck disconnect is frustrating.

“The industry has 200,000 skilled trucking jobs that are going unfilled,” he said at a recent conference in Washington, D.C. “There are a lot of people coming out of the service with qualities we want and need.”

At the conference, co-sponsored by the American Legion and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a parade of heavily decorated military officers, federal officials, veterans advocates and business leaders told horror stories.

Ismael “Junior” Ortiz, deputy assistant secretary for the Veterans and Employment Training Department at the U.S. Department of Labor, described how a member of the Florida National Guard, an experienced diesel mechanic who served in 247 combat missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, could not get a commercial driver’s license from Florida unless he went to school to be recertified.

That man is Ortiz’s brother.

Washington state is frequently cited as a model -- it enacted a law that allows military training and experience to satisfy equivalent requirements for a wide range of civilian occupations.

“Each state has their own way of doing business,” said Ed Kringer, who directs the Department of Defense’s office of state liaison and education opportunities. He’s spearheading an effort to help states streamline credentialing. His staff has identified the 10 largest military occupations from each service and is comparing them with 17 civilian occupations for a report to be released in June.

If the military occupation’s skills line up exactly with a state’s requirements, the veteran should get a license. “If it’s only about 50 percent, then they shouldn’t get a license but at least credit for 50 or 60 percent,” Kringer said.

Heather Van Hausen’s military occupation was combat medic, known in military argot as a “68 Whiskey.” She is taking courses at Westmoreland County Community College in health care administration, but is frustrated because many of her courses duplicate what she already learned on the battlefield.

Like so many who share her military occupation, the 35-year-old Arnold resident can’t transfer her skills to become a licensed nurse’s assistant. Instead, she’s looking for a part-time job at a fast-food restaurant or retail store while going to school, now that her unemployment compensation is running out.

According to Department of Defense data, the third largest category of those 101,000 veterans in 2011 who collected unemployment were combat medics.

There are efforts to streamline the process: The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the Department of Defense and the Teamsters have worked together on a Commercial Driver’s License Veterans to Work initiative, and the Motor Carrier office issued a regulation last May allowing states to waive the skills test portion of the commercial test for military personnel with comparable safe driving experience.

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