WASHINGTON -- In an effort to cut the unemployment rate among veterans, the Obama administration is calling for a new conservation program that would put veterans to work rebuilding trails, roads and levees on public lands.
The administration also will seek more grant money for programs that allow local communities to hire more police officers and firefighters.
The efforts are particularly geared to those veterans who served after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a group experiencing an unemployment rate of 13.1 percent versus 8.1 percent for non-veterans.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the Civilian Conservation Corps that operated during the 1930s could be viewed as a model for what the administration will try to accomplish through its "Veterans Jobs Corps." He said that the administration will propose spending $1 billion that would be used to put an estimated 20,000 veterans to work restoring habitat and eradicating invasive species, among other activities.
"When one looks back at the legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps, we take great comfort that those who take on these kinds of activities will leave a lasting legacy for the United States," Salazar said.
The backdrop of presidential politics is also playing a role in the Obama administration's new efforts. Several states that will be heavily contested in November have a significant military presence. Veterans will be evaluating specific ways the next White House administration intends to help them.
Administration officials said the initiatives are focused on helping veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Communities that hire veterans to work as police and firefighters will be given preference in the grants competition. Obama will also seek to increase spending for the grants programs. He will propose an additional $4 billion for the Community Oriented Policing Services program, or COPS. He will propose an additional $1 billion for the firefighter grants.
The administration will also propose a training program designed to help veterans wanting to start their own small businesses.
With GOP lawmakers stressing the need to cut government spending, it remains to be seen how far the proposals will make it in a deeply divided Congress. Many conservatives have in the past voted to cut spending for the COPS program, while Obama is calling for a major expansion. Obama is expected to unveil his proposals Friday at an Arlington, Va., fire station that was one of the first to respond to the attack on the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. Administration officials outlined the proposals in advance of his speech.
Congress also has been focusing on the problem of unemployment among veterans. A House subcommittee on Thursday examined the unemployment rate for those who serve in the National Guard or Reserves. Witnesses estimated that about 1 out of every 5 returning guardsmen is unemployed.
Theodore Daywalt, CEO and president of a jobs board called VetJobs, told lawmakers that veterans who totally separate from the military are for the most part finding work, even in today's economic environment.
"But if a veteran remains active in the National Guard, they are having a difficult time finding meaningful employment due to the constant call-ups and deployment schedules," Daywalt said in his written testimony.
Daywalt said some employers have become wary of hiring someone who is called up for as many as 24 months at a time. And the difficulty in finding work has led some guardsmen to volunteer for second or third deployments. He also predicted that the unemployment problem for guardsmen and reservists could get worse as the military downsizes because it will result in more competition when openings do occur.
About 160,000 soldiers leave active duty annually, and some 95,000 members of the National Guard and Reserves join them. The Labor Department already operates some jobs programs to help soldiers with the transition to civilian life. For example, there are employee workshops that help vets with advice on job searches and labor market conditions. The department also provides grants to states that in turn hire workers to conduct job training workshops and reach out to employers on behalf of vets.