ATLANTA — Three military veterans who now serve in the Georgia Senate say the state can do a better job helping younger, unemployed veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they’re offering a range of proposals to assist with jobs and education.
They would offer tax incentives to employers and erase some hurdles veterans face trying to earn college degrees.
Saying they feel a duty to their fellow service members, the three are asking fellow lawmakers to support measures that take aim at a problem seen nationwide: Veterans who have served since September 2001 face a higher unemployment rate than Americans who never enlisted.
“We know there are issues with coming back into society,” said Sen. Lester Jackson, D-Savannah, who spent seven years in the U.S. Navy. His stint included service during the first Gulf War in 1990. “We actually feel this legislation. We know we have to go out and help ... they would do it for us if they had this opportunity.”
The three — Jackson, Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Decatur, and Sen. Ed Harbison, D-Columbus, who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee — have filed or plan to submit bills that would:
— Offer a tax credit to businesses that hire veterans facing long-term unemployment and give preferential treatment to disabled veterans seeking certain state contracts;
— Allow those who are paying for college with Veterans Administration benefits to pay tuition in installments, and give veterans academic credit or coursework exemptions for certain skills they learned in the military;
— Establish a Returning Veterans Task Force to investigate and recommend how the state can best help veterans returning from a combat zone within the most recent three years.
Harbison said he expects the measures will win Republican support, as often is the case with veterans issues.
“If it’s military, usually I get a bipartisan hand across the aisle,” he said.
Harbison added that the proposals are in line with federal efforts. President Barack Obama this week announced a renewed push to help veterans find work.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for Iraq and Afghan vets was 9.1 percent in January, compared to 8.7 percent for non-veteran Americans. In December the unemployment gap was much wider, with recent veterans facing a rate 5 percent higher than non-vets.
Georgia state agencies don’t track the number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in the state or unemployment rates for veterans statewide. However, the Georgia Department of Veterans Services says that 100,010 veterans had their military discharge papers filed with the state agency since 2005. Spokesman Brian Zeringue said not all veterans send their paperwork to the agency, so that figure is almost surely low.
Counselors who work with unemployed veterans say they’re seeing more who served in Iraq and Afghanistan coming to seek help.
Tabeter Robinson runs Operation Open Doors, a project of the nonprofit Goodwill Industries in Savannah that works to help homeless veterans find jobs in an unforgiving economy. The program enrolled 300 veterans in its first year and placed 55 of them in jobs ranging from school janitors to mail clerks and restaurant chefs.
“We are starting to see an influx of the younger veterans,” Robinson said. “... I have several colleagues that have masters and Ph.D.’s who can’t find employment. When you’re a young soldier coming out of the military, you’re going to have a hard time trying to land employment.”
Robinson said jobless veterans could certainly use more help from the state. She applauded any attempt by lawmakers to give employers tax credits for hiring veterans. She said credits offered previously have grabbed the attention of business owners.
“This is always an eye opener — we can get this much credit for employing a veteran?” Robinson said. “When they’re making a decision whether to hire someone else or a veteran, sometimes that credit goes a long way to giving an incentive to hire that vet.”
Robinson said unemployed veterans could use more help from the state in other areas too — namely in dealing with mental illness and substance abuse.
Many homeless veterans have undiagnosed or untreated illnesses such as post-traumatic stress and bipolar disorder, or have sought treatment previously but stop taking their medications. Other veterans become dependent on drugs or alcohol, Robinson said, which often leads to arrests that result in another barrier to employment — the veteran has a criminal record.
Kenyatta Thomas is a counselor who works specifically with veterans at the Georgia Department of Labor’s job center in Savannah. With Hunter Army Airfield and Fort Stewart nearby, the community has a high population of former soldiers. She said the Savannah center sees up to 100 unemployed veterans every week.
Jobless vets often get discouraged, Thomas said, because their military training doesn’t always carry the same weight in the civilian workforce as degrees and professional certificates. For example, a soldier who drove transport trucks in the Army doesn’t automatically qualify for a commercial driver’s license to operate tractor trailers. Or an Army aircraft mechanic may not pass muster with a business jet manufacturer that wants workers to have engineering degrees, Thomas said.
“The training that you receive in the military can be just as intense and you get work experience on top of it,” Thomas said. “To get out of the military and be denied a job because you don’t have a degree, it frustrates them. And rightfully so.”
That’s where lawmakers can step in, said Jones.
“There are so many skills that veterans have that are transferable to private industry. However a lot of times they have to be retooled and we have an opportunity to make it easier for veterans to go to school,” said Jones, who served nearly two decades in the Army Reserve. “... It’s important for service members to feel like we care.”