Helping veterans isn't just a part of my job. For me, it's personal. It's in my blood.
On Veterans Day, I can't help think of my uncles who volunteered for the service after fleeing a brutal regime in the Dominican Republic. They hadn't been in America long, but they were already so grateful for its opportunities that they were eager to serve.
I can't help but think of my father, who was also Dominican-born. Even before he was a naturalized American, he served with distinction in the United States Army. And when he left the military, he made service to returning heroes his career, as a physician at the Veterans Administration hospital in Buffalo.
He would come home with inspiring stories about the heroism and sacrifice of his patients. It made me want to help veterans as well, and I have been fortunate to have that opportunity.
Protecting the rights of service members was an important part of my work as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. And now as Labor Secretary, I oversee the federal government's lead agency in helping veterans find good jobs in the civilian economy — the Veterans' Employment and Training Service (VETS).
Post-military service can be a period of anxiety and uncertainty. So many men and women return and ask themselves: what now? The Labor Department is here to help answer that question with an array of programs designed to clear pathways into the middle class.
We give veterans priority of service at our nearly 2,600 American Job Centers (AJCs) — one stop shops where job seekers can access all the resources they need. At most AJCs, we fund two staff positions devoted specifically to veterans' employment.
We have launched an online tool (mynextmove.org/vets where veterans can enter their military occupation code and discover civilian occupations for which they are well qualified.
Working with the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, we have completely overhauled the Transition Assistance Program (TAP), which helps exiting service members prepare for civilian life, including a job search.
We have a new initiative designed specifically to address the unique challenges facing women veterans. And this past summer, we announced a new regulation requiring companies that do business with the federal government to establish annual hiring goals for veterans.
There has been some encouraging news on overall veterans' unemployment. But among post-9/11 veterans, unemployment was unacceptably high at 9.3 percent during the third quarter of 2013. And shockingly, the very youngest veterans, ages 18-24, have experienced jobless rates as high as 20 percent and above. HUD has reported that more than 62,000 veterans were homeless on a given night in 2012. And according to the Center for Budget Policy and Priorities, 900,000 veterans relied on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — better known as food stamps — to feed their families in 2011.
Improving veterans' employment is an all-hands-on-deck enterprise. We work with the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, with private sector partners and others. First Lady Michelle Obama and Second Lady Jill Biden have been leading the way on these efforts with their Joining Forces Initiative. With more than 1 million service members projected to leave the military in the coming years, our programs will need to handle that much more volume and be that much more effective.
Many employers are stepping up to partner with us, making veteran recruitment a top priority. The question isn't: why would you want to hire a veteran? The question is: why wouldn't you?
They represent the very best America has to offer. They have received world-class training in specialized areas — everything from engineering to emergency medicine to IT. They also possess less tangible but absolutely essential skills — dependability and teamwork; problem-solving and leadership; mental strength and resilience — that are valued in every industry and workplace.
This isn't about granting special favors. It's about as sound a business decision as you can make. If we trusted them with the nation's security, why wouldn't you trust them with a responsible job?
The United States has been at war overseas for the last dozen years. We have asked a lot of our military over that time. Now that our troops are coming home, we must serve them as selflessly as they have served us.
Today, we honor veterans. And the best way to honor a veteran is to hire one.
Tom Perez is Secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor. He can be reached at TalktoDOL@dol.gov.