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Meeting of November 16, 2011

Written Testimony of Ruth A. Fanning,
Director, Vocational Rehabilitation Services,
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Madam Chairwoman and Commissioners, thank you for inviting me to appear before you today to discuss the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) program and specifically the services we provide to assist Veterans with disabilities to obtain suitable careers.

Veteran Employment

Military service equips Veterans with unique skills that make them excellent employees in the civilian labor market, including leadership abilities, ability to work as team members, established mission focus, and disciplined work ethics. Many leave the military with job skills that make them immediately employable in the civilian sector, but some Veterans face barriers that include lack of education, lack of transferable skills for employment, or disabilities that prevent them from utilizing developed job skills. Additional barriers may include issues such as employers’ misconceptions about disabilities, understanding when and how to disclose a disability to a prospective employer, need for job accommodation, or the need for assistance with resume development, interviewing skills, and obtaining employment. The VR&E program is committed to helping reduce these barriers by providing services leading to career employment for Veterans with disabilities.

Overview of the VR&E Program

VR&E’s primary mission is to assist Veterans to prepare for, obtain, and sustain suitable employment. Robust services are individually tailored to each Veteran’s needs. VR&E services begin with a comprehensive evaluation to help Veterans identify and understand their interests, aptitudes, and transferable skills. Next, vocational exploration focuses Veterans on potential career goals that are a match for their skill sets and current labor-market demands. This process allows Veterans to participate in the development of a rehabilitation plan that builds on their transferable skills toward an ultimate career goal. To help Veterans achieve their rehabilitation goals, VR&E may provide a broad range of employment services such as:

  • Translation of military experience to civilian skill sets;
  • Short-term training to augment existing skills to increase employability (e.g., certification preparation tests and sponsorship of certification);
  • Long-term training including on-the-job training, apprenticeships, college training, or services that support self-employment and;
  • Direct job-placement services.

The goal of every plan is to maximize the employability by matching interests and skill sets with labor market demands, ensuring compatibility of the job with disability issues - using adaptive technology whenever possible - and helping each Veteran enter the job market at a level on par with his or her peer group and in a career position in which he or she can thrive, even if disability conditions progress or worsen.

Of equal importance, VR&E helps very seriously injured Veterans live as independently as possible at home and in their communities. For those Veterans whose disabilities are too severe to make employment feasible, VR&E provides a wide range of independent living services, including volunteer work placement, assistance in accessing public transportation, life-skills coaching, counseling, and other services. To the extent possible, these services are integrated into employment plans. When necessary, VR&E provides independent living services with the ultimate goal of assisting each Veteran, to the maximum extent possible, become more independent in their daily activities and increase access within their homes and communities.

For those Veterans who are not entitled to VR&E services, vocational rehabilitation counselors (VRC) assist Veterans with referrals to other local, state, and federal employment resources such as the Department of Labor’s (DOL) Disabled Veterans Outreach program, other VA education programs, and state vocational rehabilitation programs.

Early Outreach and Intervention

Through the Coming Home to Work (CHTW) program and VR&E’s staff of over 1,100 employees around the country, extensive outreach services are provided to assist with early intervention to assist Servicemembers and Veterans transitioning to civilian life. The CHTW program provides career and adjustment counseling during and immediately following transition from active duty. This program focuses on early intervention to help wounded warriors begin planning and working toward their civilian career goals, reducing the risk of homelessness, underemployment, or unsuitable employment after discharge from the military. Each VA regional office has a designated CHTW coordinator, who works with local military treatment facilities (MTFs), Warrior Transition Units, and VA medical facilities. The thirteen largest MTFs have full-time vocational rehabilitation counselors embedded at the treatment facilities.

In addition, VR&E is engaging with DoD in FY 2012 to become involved in the Integrated Disability Evaluation System. Through this initiative, 110 VRCs will assist Veterans referred to the Physical Evaluation Board, making them aware of Post-9/11 and VR&E benefits and helping them begin working toward their employment goals through enrollment in college, technical school, internships, and/or job-readiness skills training.

VetSuccess on Campus

The purpose of the VetSuccess on Campus (VSOC) program is to ease the transition of Servicemembers to Veteran status and ensure the coordinated delivery of benefits and services to Veteran-students. VetSuccess is currently at eight locations, each campus having a full-time VRC and a part-time Vet Center outreach coordinator who provide motivational and outreach activities, assist Veterans to overcome barriers to retention in their educational programs, provide readjustment counseling and transitional support, provide needed medical or other referrals, and provide general benefits assistance. In collaboration with the Veterans Health Administration, this program is being expanded to twenty additional colleges in FY 2012.

Non-Paid Work Experience Program

During transition, many Servicemembers and Veterans want immediate employment to ease their transition back into civilian life. VR&E partners with the Department of Defense (DoD) to help Servicemembers obtain internships through the Non-Paid Work Experience Program (NPWE), helping to build Servicemembers’ resumes and often leading to competitive employment upon discharge from active duty. In addition, VR&E partners with DOL, whose Veterans Employment and Training Service (VETS) program assists with immediate employment. Many times these first jobs are “transitional employment” that help Veterans transition back into civilian life. Therefore, VR&E Service is also working closely with DOL to ensure that DOL’s programs link Veterans with VR&E or Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, if needed, to prepare for career employment. VA’s focus is to provide services that will allow Veterans to accept the first “transitional job” while also planning for their long-term career, ensuring long-term stability and upward mobility commensurate with each individual’s skill sets and interests.

Specific employment assistance includes:

  • Direct job-placement services, from development of a resume and interviewing skills to connections to employers offering employment matching the Veterans’ skill sets;
  • Training ranging from internships, on-the-job apprentice programs, certificate training to supplement existing skills, vocational training, and college training;
  • Self-employment assistance, to include evaluating and refining business plans, training in managing independent businesses, consultation services with small business experts, and support of some start-up costs for the most seriously disabled Veterans;
  • Outreach to government, private-sector, non-profit, and faith-based organizations to market Veteran employment at the individual and corporate level, including education about special hiring authorities, special employer incentives, tax credit programs, and the positive benefits of hiring Veterans;
  • A specialized web site, VetSuccess.gov, that includes job postings specifically targeted for Veteran applicants. Since the inception of the web site, 11,513 jobs targeted for Veteran applicants have been posted. In addition, the website links directly with the VetCentral career board, which provides over 8 million additional job listings. The web site also includes links to job resources, resume development tools, and search capabilities for Veterans seeking employment and employers using the site to fulfill their recruiting needs.

Program Participation and Metrics

During FY 2011, VR&E received 65,111 applications and currently has approximately 107,900 participants in all facets of the program. Of that number, approximately 58,400 are engaged in rehabilitation plans leading toward career outcomes that will be realized this year or over the next 5 years, depending on the program track and duration, as well as labor-market conditions. As a result of the anticipated draw-down of troops along with VR&E’s aggressive outreach program, the number of participants is expected to increase by 10 percent in FY 2012 and another 10 percent in FY 2013.

VR&E’s primary metric is rehabilitations – those Veterans who achieve career employment and/or maximize their independence in their homes and communities. In FY 2011, the VR&E program exceeded its program key rehabilitation rate targets, despite the challenging national economic environment and high unemployment rate.

Initiatives

VR&E Service is continuing to work hard to develop new solutions that will further enhance employment and independent living services. We anticipate that as Servicemembers return from combat, and Vietnam Veterans with serious and progressive disabilities are awarded service-connection based on the new Agent Orange presumptive conditions, we will experience an increase in work with Veterans presenting more complex disabilities and associated barriers to employment. In addition, as assistive technology becomes more sophisticated and new rehabilitation models allow Veterans with more significant disabilities to enter the world of work, we also anticipate that rehabilitation plans that address both independent living and employment needs will increase. In our society, which places high value on the contributions one makes and the corresponding positive impact on self-esteem and health, this dual approach leading to employment within the Veteran’s capabilities is the ideal model.

Business Process Reengineering

During the past year, VR&E Service launched a transformation project geared to making our program the premier 21st Century Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment program. This transformation effort focuses on modernizing and streamlining services using a Veteran-centric advocacy approach.

VR&E’s transformative changes include: allowing Veterans more choice in their appointment scheduling through automated scheduling; streamlining and expediting the evaluation and planning process by reducing bureaucratic processes and paperwork performed by VR&E counselors; developing a caseload and staffing model and additional performance metrics; establishing a Knowledge Management Portal for counselors to simplify access to regulations, guidance and other policy information needed to perform their jobs; and developing methods and business rules to move VR&E into a paperless processing model that incorporates self-service capabilities.

VA Industry Innovation Initiatives

VR&E Service is also engaged in innovation initiatives to build self-employment incubators and tools, leading to more Veteran-owned businesses. Another innovation initiative focuses on self-management that will allow the most seriously disabled Veterans to work in the career of their choosing and live as independently as possible. We are also utilizing staff ideas submitted through the VA employee innovation competition to identify additional program enhancements.

Conclusion

Now, more than ever, the employment needs of Veterans are of the highest priority to VA. VA is showing leadership through our involvement in implementing the President’s government-wide hiring initiative, serving not only as one of the leaders with the Office of Personnel Management and DoD in developing this initiative, but also as a leader in the hiring of Veterans. VR&E is pivotal to the success of this initiative, working with government agencies and departments to increase employment of Veterans with disabilities. We are actively working with Servicemembers while still on active duty, in order to decrease the time from discharge to employment and ensure career goals leading toward in-demand occupations. We are collaborating with businesses in all sectors to identify employment opportunities, particularly with those sectors with a lack of qualified applicants. We are also working to strategically understand job trends to help Veterans match their career plans with future job-market demands. Finally, we are working to use effective tools and innovations to meet the needs of transitioning Servicemembers – reaching out early, maximizing important partnerships with DOL and other government and non-government partners, and leveraging technology that enables employment and independence.

Madam Chairwoman and Equal Employment Opportunity Commissioners, this concludes my statement. I would be pleased to answer any questions you may have.