Accepting the position of assistant secretary of labor for veterans’ training and employment brought me from Montana to Washington, D.C. This month, my new job took me from the district all the way to Alaska. You may not know it, but at approximately 10 percent, the percentage of Alaskans who are veterans is one of the highest in the nation.
So I made the 6,700-mile roundtrip to spend four days days learning firsthand the unique challenges faced by Alaska’s veterans and their families, and how the Labor Department can improve our services to them. Sen. Mark Begich, an advocate for Alaska’s veterans, accompanied me throughout the trip and offered valuable insight.
[Listen to a radio interview with Assistant Secretary Kelly and Sen. Begich.]
I learned that delivering employment services is a challenge when many veterans live in small communities spread across vast distances. Employment opportunities in remote communities are limited, and travel logistics can be complicated by weather and high costs. But some organizations like the Yuut Elitnaurviat People’s Learning Center in Bethel have been successful in creating training programs that have helped veterans in remote communities learn valuable trade skills, and we can learn from the center’s example.
In the state’s more populated areas, the challenges are similar to those faced by veterans in other states, such as learning to translate military skills into civilian employment and supporting a family while making major life adjustments.
There are many good, middle-class job opportunities for veterans in Alaska in what are traditionally labeled “blue collar” fields. I toured an electrician apprenticeship program that trains veterans and talked to veterans employed at an aviation products manufacturing facility. Manufacturing is one of the fields in which the administration’s successful Joining Forces initiative has secured nearly 300,000 commitments from private businesses to hire or train veterans and their spouses, along with transportation and logistics, first responders, health care, and information technology.
Helping employers understand the value of hiring veterans, as well as how to recruit and retain them is part of our mission. I shared how veterans bring skills and leadership to any work environment with business leaders from the state’s aircraft, freight, construction and environmental sectors. I also held a roundtable with labor leaders from the AFL-CIO, Pipefitters, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Carpenters Union and others to discuss what veterans need to succeed in the workplace.
Some veterans aren’t waiting around to be hired; they’re going out and starting businesses of their own. I met some of these “vetrepreneurs” and directed them to federal resources that can help them turn their goals into reality.
At the University of Anchorage, I spoke with student veterans about their own job prospects. For veterans considering going back to school, the Labor Department has an online tool called My Next Move for Vets, which includes a list of “bright” occupations that are growing.
I was encouraged by what I saw in Alaska, and I’m encouraged by the positive signs we’re seeing in veterans employment. But we know there is more work to do: 1 million more service members are expected to transition into the civilian workforce over the next few years. To help meet those needs, the president has proposed substantial funding increases for veterans programs administered by the Labor Department.
At each stop I thanked the veterans I met for their service, sacrifice and selfless commitment to protecting and promoting our freedoms. And I emphasized that we in Washington are committed to upholding our duty to honor that sacrifice by helping veterans find good jobs, no matter how far from the capital they might be.
Keith Kelly is the assistant secretary of labor for veterans’ employment and training.