Cheryl Blackburn, an Army veteran, had previously held jobs in customer service and as a security contractor, but is also unemployed. She recently signed up for the Veteran Retraining Assistance Program. (U.S. Department of Labor)

For Cheryl Blackburn, an Army veteran who lost her job as a leasing consultant in March, the search for new employment has been frustrating.

“I wanted to get back in government, but everybody said you needed a degree,” said Blackburn, a D.C. resident who once worked as a security consultant for the State Department. “I had the experience, but I needed the degree.”

Blackburn, 51, of Southeast, is one of the first veterans in the country to sign up for a new program offered jointly by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Labor Department aimed at retraining up to 99,000 older veterans for high-demand jobs.

The program, known as the Veteran Retraining Assistance Program (VRAP), targets unemployed veterans between the ages of 35 and 60. The program is a key part of the VOW to Hire Heroes Act passed by Congress and signed by President Obama late last year.

Blackburn hopes to use the program to earn a degree in finance at the University of the District of Columbia or Northern Virginia Community College.

Julius Ware II, formerly an Army sergeant, had once run his own electrical company and had held a job in public works for a Maryland town but is currently unemployed. Ware recently signed up for the Veteran Retraining Assistance Program. (U.S. Department of Labor)

“This important tool will help those who served our country receive the education and training they need to find meaningful employment in a high-demand field,” Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki said upon the program’s May 15 launch.

Much of the focus on reducing veterans’ unemployment has been on Iraq-Afghanistan-era service members, who face the highest levels of joblessness. A report released Thursday by Congress’s Joint Economic Committee said that unemployment among veterans ages 18 to 24 was more than 30 percent in 2011, nearly double that of non-veterans and significantly higher than that of veterans from other eras. By contrast, the unemployment rate of veterans ages 35 to 44 was 7.2 percent in 2011, and 7.6 percent for those 45 to 54.

Nonetheless, nearly two-thirds of all unemployed veterans are over 35, noted Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

In March, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of unemployed veterans stood at 223,000 for the Vietnam era, 224,000 for the Cold War era, 144,000 for the Persian Gulf War era and 224,000 for the Iraq and Afghanistan era.

“Too many unemployed veterans, who did not expect to have to begin a second career at this stage of their life, are now faced with the need for new skills to compete in this struggling economy,” Miller said in a statement.

Ishmael “Junior” Ortiz, deputy assistant secretary for the Labor Department’s Veterans’ Employment and Training Service, wrote on the department’s blog that while finding good jobs is a challenge for many former service members, “for some older veterans, these challenges are even greater.”

VRAP will allow qualified veterans to start education or training after July 1 in a VA-approved program offered by a community college or technical school leading to an associate degree, a non-college degree or a certificate for a high-demand occupation as defined by the Labor Department.

Upon completion of training, the Labor Department is to help the veterans find jobs related to their newly acquired skills. “We are committed to the full and speedy implementation of this program to ensure the success of our veterans in the civilian labor market,” Ortiz said.

The program is designed for veterans who are not eligible for other VA education programs, such as the Post-9/11 GI Bill or the Montgomery GI Bill. Information about the program is available at a VA Web site,, or by calling VA at 800-827-1000.

“This is a bipartisan effort, and if the president is serious about reducing veteran unemployment, I hope he will use his bully pulpit to tout this opportunity as a long-term solution to help America’s veterans find meaningful employment and financial stability,” Miller said.

Julius Ware II, 52, an Army veteran who lost his job last year with a public works department in Maryland, has signed up for the program and hopes to earn a degree in business administration at the National Labor College in Silver Spring.

“It’s going to make a huge difference,” said Ware, a D.C. resident.

Ware, who served with the 82nd Airborne Division and left the service as a sergeant in 1981, said he feels a responsibility to make good in the program.

“It’s Memorial Day, and veterans are in the public eye,” Ware said. “In any federal program, the success of the initial cohort has a huge impact on funding for those who follow. So I feel like I have a huge responsibility.”