Federal Diary: Government is living up to a promise to veterans

By Joe Davidson
Friday, June 4, 2010; B03

They were cheered at parades, and their fallen comrades were honored at wreath-laying ceremonies.

But now that the Memorial Day celebrations are a few days gone, veterans might be wondering: What have you done for me lately?

This is a good time to ask.

Next Wednesday marks six months since President Obama issued an executive order calling on the federal government to increase its hiring of vets.

So what has the administration done for veterans since then? It has created a three-year master plan for the program, set up veteran employment offices in each government agency and launched a Web site to help vets find jobs.

"I think things have moved very fast, very rapidly," said John McWilliam, a deputy assistant secretary of labor. "A tremendous amount of effort has been put into this."

The secretaries of labor and veterans affairs chair the Council of Veterans Employment created by Obama's order. It is charged with coordinating a government-wide effort to enhance the recruitment and training of vets to make them more employable by government agencies.

Part of that effort is in the form of a government-wide strategic plan, which was called for in the order. The Office of Personnel Management published it in January.

The plan puts meat -- in the form of goals, strategies and indicators of progress -- on the bones of the four areas that Obama deemed critical to veterans' employment: leadership commitment, skills development, marketing and an information gateway.

For example, one of the leadership strategies calls on administration officials to "create advocates for veterans' employment within each federal agency." All 24 agencies covered by the order have established a Veterans Employment Program, as the president directed, according to Ken Robbins, a White House fellow working as an assistant to OPM Director John Berry. Berry is vice chairman of the council.

"That aspect of it has been accomplished," said Robbins, who as an Army major could be considered a pre-veteran.

For veterans looking for government work, the Web site http://www.fedshirevets.gov is a good place to start.

All presidents have a soft spot for vets, so making noise about helping them is nothing new. But the Obama administration has put action behind the words. The strategic plan, for example, is the first one devoted to increasing the employment of vets in the federal government.

But more than producing a lofty document, the administration has made sure the message about increasing veterans' federal employment has been heard throughout the government. And that's been noticed by the veterans' service organizations.

"The difference this time is agencies taking heed of those executive orders," said Joseph Sharpe, the American Legion's economic division director. "We [previously] didn't see that level of commitment from the agencies. But now it seems to be a constant where the agencies are echoing the order, to include training their HR personnel to do what's needed."

One thing that's missing, said David Autry, a spokesman for the Disabled American Veterans, is a way to measure progress. It might be too soon to tell whether the order will ultimately be effective, but Autry said the time is right to develop goals. He recommended better statistical tracking of hiring compliance and a recognition program for agencies that meet or exceed targets.

"It may be too early to say that we've seen any difference," he said. "The president has seemingly made it a priority to increase the number of veterans hired. I think there's a realization that something has gone wrong over the years, and they're looking for ways to ameliorate the situation. But still, without the stick to go with the carrot, we don't know if it's going to work or not . . . do some accountability, do some tracking."

Setting hiring goals for agencies is under consideration. "It is a topic for discussion that the steering committee of the council will take up," probably this month, Robbins said.

The latest OPM report on the "Employment of Veterans in the Executive Branch" shows a wide range in the percentages of vets working in the various agencies. Overall, veterans were 25.5 percent of the employees in executive branch agencies in fiscal year 2008. That ranged from a high of 49.7 percent in the Air Force (the Defense Department as a whole was 40.6 percent) to just 5.6 percent at the National Science Foundation.

The administration is developing a "skills translator" to help vets realize that seemingly narrow-use military skills might have broad application in the civilian side of government. There might not be much call for artillery experts outside of the Army, McWilliam noted, but sergeants and officers in that field might have more experience in training and personnel management than they realize.

Tony Eiland is a Navy vet who joined the government just before the executive order was signed. He has nothing but good things to say about his experience getting into the civilian side of government.

The system is veteran friendly, Eiland said, "because a lot of people have worked extremely hard to make it that way."

Staff writer Eric Yoder contributed to this column.

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