Fighting for veterans

Michelle Obama on Wednesday visited the U.S. Naval Academy as part of her push to find employment for veterans.

The first lady also attended a bill-signing ceremony with Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), a possible 2016 presidential contender, as part of her Joining Forces initiative, which is celebrating its second anniversary this month.

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The bill O’Malley signed will make it easier for veterans to obtain civilian professional licenses for skills they learned in the military.

Speaking to the nation’s governors in February, Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, the vice president’s wife, pushed for all 50 states to make it easier for veterans to get the necessary licenses and certifications by 2015. 

While most of former service members learned the necessary skills in the military, they don’t have the official licenses needed to obtain civilian jobs.

“Veterans frequently find formal private sector recognition of their military experiences and skill sets difficult to obtain,” according to a May 2012 report from the President’s Council of Economic Advisers.

The report cited the frequent moves made by military personnel, combined with the costs and requirements for occupational licenses in each state, as detrimental to veterans’ employment efforts.

In the two months since Obama and Biden spoke to the governors, 13 states have passed legislation that fast-tracks the ability for service veterans, as well as their spouses, to earn civilian credentials and licenses.

Helping veterans and their families has become a signature issue for Obama and Biden.

The first lady, in particular, involves veterans in most of her public events. 

A group of veterans joined Obama last week for the annual planting of the White House garden, and she and Biden hosted a concert for military children as part of the inaugural festivities. And a group of military White House aides stood behind the first lady when she announced the Best Picture Academy Award in February.

She is also making the initiative part of her commencement speech schedule. Obama will address graduates at Eastern Kentucky University on May 11. The school has an outstanding record supporting veterans and military families, according to the White House.

Laura Dempsey, who is co-founder of Blue Star Families and works for the Hiring Our Heroes Program at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the first lady does more for veterans than most people see.

“There are a lot of things being done very quietly for military families in terms of helping those families get a little break, have a little fun,” she said.

“There’s always a large portion of military families who are invited to official functions,” she added, giving the lighting of White House Christmas tree, Easter Egg Roll and Halloween party as examples.

Joining Forces was founded, in part, to help veterans and their spouses find employment.

The unemployment rate for veterans has gone down 2 percent in the past year, from 9.2 percent in April 2012 to 7.1 percent in March 2013, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The overall unemployment rate has fallen in that time too, but not as rapidly.

But the unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans remains even higher, as the first lady pointed out in a March speech to CEOs at a Business Roundtable forum.

She noted that “9.4 percent of post-9/11 veterans — about 200,000 people — are still unemployed. That’s almost two points higher than the national rate. And for women veterans, the rate is even higher. And many young veterans, those ages 18 to 24 — more than 1 out of 3 are unemployed.”

It’s the unemployment numbers for these younger veterans that cause concern.

The number of veterans entering the job market is expected to increase over the next few years as troops are drawn down from Afghanistan. About 1 million military personnel are estimated to rejoin the civilian workforce.

Dempsey noted that more than 50 percent of service members are married, noting “If spouses are gainfully employed, that is going to ease the job search” for the veteran.

“These families are dual-income families just like the rest of America,” she said.

Obama and Biden have lobbied both the private and public sectors as part of their work.

Besides lobbying governors to pass legislation, they have applauded the efforts of companies like Wal-Mart and UPS, which have announced initiatives to hire more veterans.

Wal-Mart, one of the nation’s largest retailers, said in January that over the next five years, it will hire every veteran who honorably left the military that applies. Company officials expect that number to exceed 100,000 people.

UPS announced in March that it is committed to hiring more than 25,000 veterans over the next five years.

“The first lady and Dr. Biden have provided unprecedented leadership in raising awareness and making this an issue,” said Kevin Schmiegel, a vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and executive director of the Hiring Our Heroes program. 

“We’re actually seeing some progress on unemployed veterans.”

The Chamber launched Hiring Our Heroes in March 2011 to help veterans and their spouses find employment, and was an early partner of Joining Forces.

Joining Forces was announced in a high-profile White House ceremony on April 12, 2011. President Obama and Vice President Biden helped launch the initiative.

The first lady has said it was her time on the campaign trail that inspired her to start the program.

“I said on the campaign trail that ... I would try to be their voice and tell their stories, because I think that most Americans are like me and like you — we are not a part of the military community, so we don’t understand that sacrifice,” she said on “The Colbert Report” last year.

Michelle Obama and Jill Biden have made high-profile media appearances in conjunction with the program. They appeared on the cover of Parade magazine and on “Sesame Street,” and attended Game 1 of the 2011 World Series in St. Louis. In addition, Obama appeared on ABC’s “Extreme Home Makeover” to help build a house that acts as a resource center for female veterans.