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Federal program offers aid to jobless vets
STATE — A new federal program, the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program (VRAP), is aimed at getting jobless vets back into the workforce – but it may be challenging to get Maine veterans engaged in the program.
According to research by the Maine Department of Labor (DOL), Maine has one of the highest percentages of veterans in the country – 13.2 percent of the adult population, or 132,000 people, have served in the armed services.
The percentage of vets in Oxford county is higher – 14.2 percent, or 6,474 people, according to the DOL. 7.6 percent of Oxford Country vets are unemployed.
VRAP is aimed to bring that number down.
The program gives unemployed veterans, between the ages of 35 and 60, the opportunity to enroll in an approved degree or certificate-earning community college or technical school program to train for more than 200 high-demand occupations – from airline pilots to conservation technicians.
There are some stipulations, however. Veterans cannot be receiving other benefits from Veterans Affairs, must have received other than a dishonorable discharge when they left the military and cannot be enrolled in a separate state or federal training program.
If they are accepted, veterans can receive up to 12 months of assistance, equal to the amount they could receive under the Montgomery G.I. Bill – $1,473 per month.
The program is limited to 45,000 participants through September 30 and 54,000 between October 1 and March 31, 2013.
Dennis Wellman, the Veterans Program manager at DOL, says that this type of short-term training program is successful at getting people back on their feet.
According to Wellman, the reason the program is targeted towards older veterans is because they do not have access to the post-9/11 G.I. Bill.
The post-9/11 G.I. Bill has a number of benefits not included in the older version. Wellman says the availability of a housing allowance for vets enrolled in school is one aspect of the program that really sets it apart from its predecessor.
Wellman says that the principal role of the Department of Labor in VRAP is helping veterans apply for the program online.
About 50-60 vets have come to the Maine career centers to sign up for the program since it has become available, Wellman says, but more could have applied on their own.
Although the program will probably be successful nationally, Wellman thinks finding large numbers of participants in Maine could be challenging.
"It's difficult reaching some of these veterans here in Maine, especially in some of the rural areas," he explains.
"They may not be connected electronically, they may not have computers. They want to stay outside of the system somewhat ... so that's one of our challenges."
Veterans' access to community colleges and technical schools that offer approved programs can also be a challenge, says Wellman.
In a rural state like Maine, taking a full-time course could mean long hours of travel, and finding an approved program through Maine's community colleges could be difficult.
Online courses might not offer a solution. Some of the high-demand positions the program lists requires hands-on experience, says Wellman.
Despite the challenges, Wellman hopes that the program will benefit some unemployed veterans, and says he is trying to get the word out to as many vets as he can.
Unfortunately, VRAP won't benefit younger, post 9/11 vets.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, young male veterans in the U.S. suffer an unemployment rate of 29.1 percent – almost 12 percent more than the rate for young male non-veterans.
The number of young, unemployed vets in Maine is less than the national average, but still high – between 2008 and 2010, the group recorded a 14-percent-average unemployment rate.
Wellman says that aside from the post-9/11 G.I. Bill and the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) that encourages employers to hire vets, there is no specific program to aid this younger generation.