By Joe Davidson
Wednesday, November 10, 2010; B03
Tuesday was a good day for veterans at the Office of Personnel Management.
With military personnel on hand to witness a ceremonial ribbon-cutting, OPM opened a Veterans Employment Program Office. It is designed to facilitate hiring vets not only at OPM but throughout the government.
Yet even with all the totally justifiable attention given vets in advance of Thursday's holiday, it was hard to ignore headlines about the legalized discrimination that prevents many Americans from becoming vets because they are gay.
"White House reiterates support for repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell,' " said The Washington Post. "Repeal of Policy on Gay Service Faces Struggle," the New York Times reported.
But the denial of rights for some shouldn't stop services Uncle Sam appropriately provides to those he approves of, that is, straight people.
So John Berry, the OPM director who so enthusiastically works for veterans even while the law says no to openly gay people like him, began the program with a simple chant: "Hire more vets!"
Wreath-laying ceremonies are important. Parades are fun. And who doesn't want a day off? All that's good, but one concrete thing Sam can do to honor veterans is help them get work, particularly in the federal government.
"I think this administration has done an exceptional job of realizing that the lack of employment for veterans should be an embarrassment for our country," said Ray Kelley, Veterans of Foreign Wars' legislative director, although he added that more needs to be done.
The employment of veterans ranges widely among federal agencies. As might be expected, the Defense Department does best, with vets making up 41 percent of its civilian workforce. With only 6.3 percent, Health and Human Services should be embarrassed as it comes in last among the executive departments. The little National Science Foundation is even worse: 5.6 percent.
An NSF spokeswoman said its "positions routinely require a Ph.D. and at least six years of research experience." Anecdotal evidence, she added, indicates that vets aren't highly represented in that group. Nonetheless, she said, NSF is working hard to improve.
Yet compared with the national workforce, employment figures for veterans don't look so bad. The unemployment rate for veterans is 8.3 percent - not good, but better than the nation's 9.6 percent rate.
At the new employment office, veterans can search for work using the government's online database, learn to write resumes and work with job counselors.
For vets, Berry said, the office will "take the headache" out of looking for federal jobs.
One headache for veterans, the Federal Career Intern Program, might soon get better because of a ruling last week by the Merit Systems Protection Board. It said the program violates veterans' employment preference.
"We fully intend to comply with the ruling," Berry said, although OPM has not ruled out an appeal.
The administration was considering major changes to the intern program even before the board's decision. In May, President Obama ordered OPM to evaluate it, and that review is working its way through the approval process.
Without going into details, Berry said the administration plans to return the program to its original purpose. "It was specifically designed as a student program," he said.
But in practice, it had become a fast-growing hiring mechanism that allowed agencies to circumvent some aspects of the competitive hiring process for many who are not students.
With the board's decision and program recommendations Berry will make to the White House, he said the program "will be fully compliant" with the MSPB ruling. OPM will not, however, take immediate action, such as stopping the program now, Berry added.
OPM said it expects to stop FCIP hiring by March 1, in compliance with the ruling.
The opening of the OPM veterans office comes exactly one year after Obama issued an executive order to "promote employment opportunities for veterans within the executive branch."
About 50,500 veterans were hired in the first nine months of fiscal 2010, 2,000 more than during the same period last year, according to Joseph Kennedy, executive director of the Council on Veterans Employment, which the order created.
Organizations representing veterans give the administration good reviews for its efforts.
"The positive thing is this is the first time I've seen a real initiative from all of the agencies to hire veterans," said the American Legion's Joe Sharpe.
Past administrations also have had veteran hiring initiatives, but they didn't get far. Sharpe and others praised Obama and Berry for putting muscle behind their good words. The muscle includes a strategic plan issued in January.
The document identifies agency barriers to increasing employment of vets, including a lack of leadership, weak infrastructure and poor understanding of veterans' preference.
In the forward to the strategic plan, Berry made the administration's goal clear: "We must aggressively dismantle barriers to entry and success for Veterans and transitioning service members pursuing careers in the Federal civil service."