License trumps military skills

Returning veterans find themselves frustrated by education requirements that duplicate military experience



Coming Home PA is a project spearheaded by PublicSource, a local nonprofit investigative news group, with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and other local media partners.

When is a combat medic no longer a skilled medical professional? When is a tank driver no longer qualified to operate heavy equipment? When is a troop division commander too inexperienced to be a security guard at a bank?

When they're newly minted veterans.

Navy veteran explains issues in return to civilian life

Jonathan Quicquaro, a 25-year old Navy veteran, talks about the issues he faced returning to civilian life. (Video by Andrew Rush; 4/15/2012)

Thanks to the tangled web of licensing and credentialing requirements in all 50 states, when soldiers certified as proficient in a military occupation get their discharge papers, most must start all over again.

Trucking jobs require a commercial driver's license, and that usually means going back to school. While the average cost -- about $5,000 -- is covered by the post-9/11 GI Bill -- the time and effort can be a deterrent to veterans needing a job immediately.

Pennsylvania is one of 15 states that allow a waiver of the licensing test if the veteran had two years' experience driving a similar vehicle -- but that's more challenging than it seems. Military trucks all have automatic transmissions, for example, while many commercial trucks are manual.

Three other states are enacting similar provisions, but eight states have declined to enact the waiver, and 25 others have not indicated their plans.

For Jim Barr, vice president of government relations of Ryder Trucking, a national transportation company, the tank-to-truck disconnect is immensely frustrating.

"The industry has 200,000 skilled trucking jobs that are going unfilled," he said at a recent Washington, D.C., conference. "There are a lot of people coming out of the service with qualities we want and need."

At the conference, co-sponsored by the American Legion and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a parade of heavily decorated military officers, federal officials, veterans advocates and business leaders told plenty of horror stories.

One of the first speakers, Ismael "Junior" Ortiz -- deputy assistant secretary for the Veterans and Employment Training Department at the U.S. Department of Labor, described how one member of the Florida National Guard, an experienced diesel mechanic who served in 247 combat missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, could not get a commercial driver's license from Florida unless he went to school to be recertified.

That man is Mr. Ortiz's brother.

Closer to home, Patrick Brookhouser, a tank driver, talked at a recent jobs fair in Pittsburgh about earning expert-level driver and mechanic badges in both wheeled and tracked vehicles during his 4 1/2 years of service.

None of those skills or honors equal a certificate he can present to a civilian employer.

"It was horribly frustrating seeing that I had all the experience," the 30-year-old Aspinwall resident said, but "I start out from the bottom."

At a recent job fair in Johnstown, Army helicopter maintenance test pilot Jason Williams believes the work he did should have also allowed him to qualify for an electrician's license.

"You don't get any certificate that you can carry directly to a civilian employer," the 40-year old active duty soldier said of the Army. "You have to go out on your own and get these things."

Washington state is frequently cited as a model -- it enacted a law that allows military training and experience to satisfy equivalent requirements for a wide range of civilian occupations. But beyond the commercial drivers license waiver, there are no plans in Pennsylvania to enact similar legislation, state officials said.

"Each state has their own way of doing business," said Ed Kringer, director of state liaison and educational opportunity in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, who is spearheading an effort to help states streamline credentialing. His staff has identified the 10 largest military occupations from each service and are comparing them with 17 civilian occupations for a report to be released in June.

If the military occupation's skills line up exactly with the state's requirements, the veteran should get a license. "If it's only about 50 percent, then they shouldn't get a license but at least credit for 50 or 60 percent," Mr. Kringer said.

"There are three things we're asking states to do, and the one thing we're not asking them to do is lower their standards."

Heather Van Hausen's military occupation was combat medic, known in military argot as a "68 Whiskey." She is taking courses at Westmoreland County Community College in health care administration, but is frustrated because many of her courses duplicate what she already learned on the battlefield.

Like so many who share her military occupation, the 35-year-old Arnold resident can't transfer her skills to become a licensed nurse's assistant. Instead, she's looking for a part-time job at a fast-food restaurant or retail store while going to school, now that her unemployment compensation is running out.

According to Department of Defense data, the third largest category of those 101,000 veterans in 2011 who collected unemployment were combat medics.

There are efforts to streamline the process: The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the Department of Defense and the Teamsters have worked together on a Commercial Driver's License Veterans to Work initiative, and the Motor Carrier office issued a regulation last May allowing states to waive the skills test portion of the commercial test for military personnel with comparable safe driving experience.

The trucking certification is a huge one for veterans, said Ben Keen, 31, founder of Steel City Vets, a support group for younger veterans.

"It's easier here than in other places, but veterans are telling me how frustrating it is to spend eight years doing this stuff in a real-world situation, only to get passed over for a job because a kid out of high school has a civilian certification," he said.

"This is not going to happen right away," Mr. Kringer cautioned, "and the governments of each state have to come together and say, 'Yeah, this is it.' "

businessnews - lifestyle

Mackenzie Carpenter: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949. Molly Born: mborn@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1944. First Published April 16, 2012 5:15 PM


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