Millions of U.S. military veterans who have risked their lives while serving their country and often bear the scars of battle confront a frustrating web of red tape as they begin their journey back into civilian life and try to use the job skills they’ve perfected in war zones.
For a combat medic, years of experience patching gunshot wounds or treating burns after bombings on the streets of Kabul don’t necessarily qualify them to work as an EMT or other first responder on the streets of Chicago.
Soldiers who have logged thousands of hours driving heavy-duty vehicles on unpaved mountain roads in Afghanistan often find themselves forced into training programs to learn skills they already know. Electricians who have helped set up military infrastructure in some of the most desolate corners of the world have to figure out what state certifications and licenses they need to practice at home.
Economists say the nation’s patchwork system of licenses, certifications and training requirements has long held back growth and worker mobility and hits veterans especially hard. How to break through one of the country’s most stubborn bureaucratic barriers has spurred conversations in Washington, state capitals, city halls and universities.
“It’s a disconnect between supply and demand. The demand for these roles — the military seems to be producing a supply of qualified people and yet they’re not going into these roles,” said Dan Goldenberg, a retired Navy captain and executive director of the Call of Duty Endowment, a project aimed at easing veterans’ transition into the workforce.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the Depression-level jobless rates have brought the problem into even starker relief. The Pentagon said last week that many service members whose enlistment terms are up opt to stay in the military for now given the bleak civilian job outlook.
Mr. Goldenberg said his group’s research has found that more than half of veterans want to find civilian jobs that mirror their work in the military. Making that a reality, however, is far from simple.
“The most basically trained [military] medic … could easily walk right out of that training and be qualified to be an EMT,” he told The Washington Times in a recent interview. “When they come out into the civilian job market in many, many cases, they’re made to start over.
“They come back and they’re told [they] can’t ride in the back of an ambulance,” he said. “A lot of them just turn away and say it’s too expensive or too frustrating — ‘I’m not going to do it.’ And that’s wrong.”
Ironically, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a massive need for health care workers across the U.S., and the economic ripple effects could drive crucial demand in coming months for truck drivers and other skilled workers to keep the country moving.
‘A hot mess’
States’ training requirements in economic sectors can vary wildly. Specialists say it’s not always clear which certifications will transfer, which college programs offer degrees that will be accepted across state lines and exactly what kinds of real-world experience can be counted.
“It’s a hot mess even if you’re not dealing with the military stuff. Then you add that layer and it just becomes more so. It’s more like a boiling mess,” said Jenny Parks, vice president of the Midwestern Higher Education Compact.
An estimated 1 in 4 American jobs require a license, and the Department of Labor says the list has expanded. Licensing groups say the practice is vital to ensure an architect or dental hygienist is competent, but it has sparked debates in state capitals over whether more occupations — interior designers, cosmetologists, tour guides, musical therapists — should be monitored and restricted.
The compact, comprising states across the Midwest, operates the Multi-State Collaborative on Military Credit, which seeks to streamline the qualification process for veterans and establish relatively uniform guidance to ease their transition into the civilian workforce.
For a veteran with medical experience seeking to become a nurse, for example, the challenge begins with differing requirements on how their work in the military will translate into a civilian job.
Veterans often have to research which states will accept the degree they are pursuing, which can be a logistical headache at a crucial time.
Consider a distance education student in an online nursing program. Ms. Parks said.
“You’re in Michigan, and you’re in an online program that is in Arizona. And you might eventually want to practice in Maryland. When you’re taking that program at the time … that school needs to be able to say whether or not the program they’re offering you qualifies you for licensure in Michigan.”
Many universities offer special consideration to veterans and allow some military training and experience to count toward degrees or certification. The Department of Veterans Affairs and other federal agencies have worked with state governments and private companies to establish initiatives.
One of them is the Military CDL Skills Test Waiver program, which allows service members with at least two years of experience driving commercial vehicles to test immediately for a private-sector commercial driver’s license. Before the program was implemented, veterans who had mastered many of the skills still had to take training tests.
State governments are taking other actions. Lawmakers in Maryland recently pushed legislation requiring the state to honor a veteran’s occupational license and certificate from another state, provided they have been in good standing for the past year.
Vermont enacted a law allowing veterans with comparable military experience to apply for licenses as vehicle mechanics, plumbers, electricians, nursing assistants and certain other vocations.
The Labor Department last year offered grants of up to $2.5 million for cooperative agreements aimed at expediting occupational licenses for veterans.
Although those programs are valuable and a step in the right direction, some say they are not enough. Spouses of service members often have difficulty moving to other states every few years as part of redeployment.
“You have military spouses with active-duty spouses moving from base to base with an average of being at a base for two years. How many of these spouses want to have their own career paths? What happens if they want their own individuality and career?” said Alanna Wilson, vice president of government affairs at the Knee Center for the Study of Occupational Regulation at St. Francis University.
“It takes anywhere from 10 months to a year and a half … in some states to get that license,” she said. “And then what? Practice it for maybe six months after they get a license?”
The root issue, critics say, boils down to wildly different standards from state to state. In the medical field, veterans’ harrowing real-world experience can rival any gruesome scene in one of the nation’s emergency rooms. Mr. Goldenberg said a uniform test for veterans in that case is one potential.
“In the medical environment, it should be that easy,” he said. “You’re giving them a fair chance. Take the test, make it as hard as you want, give them the test. There’s one objective standard.
“In the medical world, we bring people from other countries on visas to fill critical areas in health care,” he said. “Yet we don’t invest the time and effort to convert our own veterans’ training in the medical field.”
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