WASHINGTON -- Democrats and Republicans rarely agree on anything in Washington, but there's a growing bipartisan sense on Capitol Hill that the private sector will have to domuch more to help Congress ease chronically high unemployment among veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
In August, President Obama called on the nation's businesses to hire or train 100,000 unemployed veterans by the end of 2013, a challenge that Microsoft answered with a pledge to train 10,000 of them.
Now, as part of his $447 billion jobs package, Obama wants Congress to approve a plan that would provide businesses with a tax credit of $2,400 to $9,600 for each veteran they hire, depending on whether they are disabled and how long they have been unemployed.
A million veterans already are unemployed and more than a million are expected to leave the military by 2016. Julius Clemente, a 33-year-old Iraq veteran from Kirkland, told a congressional panel Thursday that there will be "systematic chaos" if more of them can't find jobs or get help going to college.
"The path we now face from the military to college -- life is more complicated and challenging than what I thought," Clemente told lawmakers.
Congress appears eager to respond, though there's no consensus on a specific plan.
At a "roundtable" meeting of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the committee's chairman, called veterans "the most employable group of people in the world."
"They know how to show up for work for time, they've got tremendous skills, and they have great attitudes," she said. "And they have just so much to offer to our country."
North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, the top-ranked Republican on the panel, said that veterans "can't be that valuable to this country and not that valuable to American business."
"We've just got to find a way to highlight that to corporate America," he said.
Many members of Congress have long sympathized with returning veterans who have difficulty transferring their skills to civilian jobs, often because it's difficult for them to get the necessary certifications, even if their skills are similar.
Clemente, a naturalized U.S. citizen who is a native of the Philippines, served seven years in the military and was honorably discharged in 2005 after serving in Iraq. He enlisted in the Navy as a hospital corpsman and worked at a naval hospital in Japan, but he said he could not find a comparable job in the United States after he left the military.
"My certification, my experience in the military, faces a difficult challenge of transferring over to the civilian side," he said.
In 2007, Clemente enrolled in Bellevue College, where he helped form a group that supports other veterans. After graduating this year, he now has a job as a medical assistant.
"I'd like to one day practice medicine and help veterans and foreign immigrants ... in Washington state," he told the committee members.
Murray, who became the committee's chairman in January, said the federal government needs to step up its training efforts for veterans. In June, the committee passed a bill introduced by Murray called the Hiring Heroes Act of 2011, which for the first time would require the government to provide job-skills training for all service members before they return home.
"We take a lot of time to train our military to be in the military, but we take no time to train them to be a civilian again," Murray said.
She added that it would make financial sense for the government to do more training to make sure that more veterans land jobs as soon as possible.
"The Army alone last year paid almost a billion dollars in unemployment insurance," Murray said. "We're paying that cost already. If we would think like a business, we would say, 'How do we reduce that cost?' ''
Brad Smith, Microsoft's general counsel and executive vice president for legal and corporate affairs, said the Redmond company plans to team up with the U.S. Department of Labor to offer 10,000 "technology training and certification packages" to veterans. It's an expansion of Microsoft's existing efforts, increasing its spending on veterans-related training programs to $12 million.
"If there's one thing that we at Microsoft know ... it's that veterans make great employees," Smith said. "They're smart, they're talented, they're dedicated, they work well as individuals and they work well in teams. And that's an amazing set of attributes."
For its part, the federal government has been increasing its hiring of veterans, as well. The government hired 2,000 more veterans in 2010 than it did in 2009, according to the most recent figures available from the White House.
w Rob Hotakainen: 202-383-0009 firstname.lastname@example.org