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What's the worst federal agency for hiring veterans? Try Congress.
Despite numerous efforts by lawmakers in recent years to spur veterans employment in the private sector, few congressional offices have followed suit. A new survey estimates that fewer than 180 veterans are employed as Capitol Hill staff, a mere 3 percent of the 6,000-plus employees there.
For comparison, in fiscal 2012 nearly half of all Defense Department employees were veterans. One in three Veterans Affairs and Transportation Department workers were veterans that year, and the Education Department — one of the lowest veteran hiring rates among federal agencies — had just under 10 percent.
Now, a network of veterans working in Congress is hoping to change that.
HillVets, formed less than a year ago to connect and assist former military personnel working in the legislative branch, this month announced plans to double the number of veterans in those jobs by the start of the next legislative session, in January 2016.
On Tuesday, Reps. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., and Don Young, R-Alaska, will announce the formation of a new Veterans Congressional Fellowship Caucus, with a mission to increase the number of veterans working on Capitol Hill. That will include a new congressional fellowship program for veterans, which will accept its first participants this summer.
Abigail Gage, director of outreach for HillVets and an Army National Guard captain, said getting each of the 535 members of Congress to hire just one veteran would almost triple the current total.
"We're hoping we can reach out and help them understand the skill sets that veterans can bring to an office," she said. "I think a lot of people don't know how much research and writing some members of the military do."
Part of the problem may be the demographics of Congress itself.
The current session opened with 108 lawmakers with military experience, roughly 20 percent of the two chambers. That number has dropped steadily since the 1970s, when more than 70 percent of members were veterans.
Many of the lawmakers who have hired veterans as staffers in the HillVets survey sit on the Armed Services and Veterans' Affairs committees, giving them added incentive to add employees with military knowledge.
But Gage said another issue is that until her organization launched last year, veterans had no organized network to help lobby for those jobs.
Part of the HillVets effort is résumé reviews, to help show qualified veterans how to best market their skills toward legislative jobs and help market those candidates to colleagues on Capitol Hill.
Ian Staples, an Army Reserve captain who recently landed a job with Rep. William Enyart, D-Ill., said having that support was invaluable in his job search.
He returned from an Afghanistan deployment in January, and had some experience working on political campaigns but few contacts among elected officials' offices. But he was able to land interviews within weeks of contacting HillVets.
"Having some kind of network is absolutely critical," he said.
Gage said already a number of other qualified veterans have reached out to the organization in recent weeks.
"These are people who appreciate long hours and hard work," she said. "They have first-hand experience with the claims backlog, deployments, issues like the integration of women into combat roles. And almost every congressional district has a VA facility.
"So, they're valuable assets. But we're not seeing a lot of veterans in those discussions right now."
For more information on the HillVets programs, visit its website at http://hillvets.org/.