Veterans Affairs officials are pushing Congress to lift the funding cap on a popular pilot program focused on technology training for transitioning veterans, saying they expect to use up all available funds by mid-summer.
“This is an extremely important tool in our toolbox,” Ronald Burke, deputy under secretary for policy at the Veterans Benefits Administration, told lawmakers last week. “If we are really serious about better employment [for veterans], this is one that needs to stay in that toolbox.”
The program, Veteran Employment Through Technology Education Courses (VET TEC), was launched in 2019 as a five-year pilot program. VA officials said interest in it has exceeded expectations, with more than 13,500 applications and 3,000 enrolled this year alone.
Eligible vets could receive a year of tuition and other financial support to learn a new career.
The initiative links transitioning veterans and some still-serving troops with “industry-leading training providers” to learn in-demand technology skills. Classes currently offered through the program include software development, data science, network security and web development skills.
The program is free for veterans, but training companies receive only half of their costs when students enroll and complete the courses. The other half are delivered “once the student secures meaningful employment in his or her field of study,” an incentive designed to ensure the classwork turns into meaningful employment.
The VET TEC pilot was originally currently capped at $15 million annually, but has already been boosted to $45 million. Burke said he expects the fiscal 2021 money to run out in the next two months.
“It’s a very popular program,” he said. “In order to sustain this level of volume, we’re looking at someone in the range of $125 million for VET TEC.”
In the White House’s just released budget plan for fiscal 2022, the program is still capped at $45 million. But lawmakers on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee appeared open to the idea of further plus-ups, especially in light of challenges surrounding veterans unemployment connected to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“We know the economic impacts of the pandemic are going to be with us for some time,” said Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H. “I’m concerned about the recent rise in the veteran unemployment rate, what that says about transitioning at this tough time, and what opportunities are out there for veterans.”
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Late last year, Congress approved a new rapid retraining program for veterans who lost their job because of coronavirus closures and layoffs. Applications for that program opened last month. Burke said about 3,500 applications have already been submitted.
But he also warned that if that program proves as popular as the technology training, department officials could similarly ask more more support there.
The program has a cap of 17,000 participants but also $386 million in funding, a figure that department officials say will likely support about half of that student total.
More information on the VET TEC program is available at the VA web site.