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Creating Financial Support Structures for Veteran Students

Creating Financial Support Structures for Veteran Students
The ARVEPT program provides Arkansas veterans with the jumpstart they need to begin their training toward a high-demand, high-wage career without having to wait on an over-burdened bureaucracy to give them the green light.

The following interview is with Steve Lease, the Director of Workforce Training at the Arkansas Association of Two Year Colleges. The AATYC is currently responsible for a large number of ongoing grants and in this interview, Lease discusses the Arkansas Veterans Education and Training Partnership Grant, which will provide Arkansas Veterans with pathways into high-demand, high-wage careers and also will meet their specific financial and social needs.

1. What is the Arkansas Veterans Education and Training Partnership?

There’s been a SGA—a solicitation for grant applications—put out through jointly by the Veteran’s Administration and also the US Department of Labor. The US Department of Labor has got the primary responsibility to oversee the funding budget expenditures and reconciliation with the guards to expenditures versus outcomes.

The ARVETP’s proposal, or SGA’s, came down this summer and apparently we turned out to be one of 11 that was selected out of 192 national applications. I think the reason that Arkansas was selected was because the ongoing strength of the partnerships and collaborations that we’ve developed over the last several years related to US Department of Labor skills training grants. …

The ARVETP represents an attempt in the 11 sites to work with existing Veterans and there are four criteria of the grant. Primarily what it comes down to is, being war veterans or honorably discharged veterans—whether they were engaged in war conflict, or not. It also has to be those who were either dislocated or simply unemployed following their tour of duties.

I believe the number was estimated at roughly 17,000 in Arkansas that may potentially be eligible. Our goal for the three-year grant—it’s a $2.5 million, three-year grant—our goal is to provide intake and processing of approximately 900 veterans that would be eligible. And then see that we can train and provide industry-recognized certificates or degrees in healthcare, and also in green industry. …

In the ARVETP partnership grant, they are to be trained in a variety of green industry certification areas. It could be in building trades, it could be in welding, HVAC, renewable energy technology, hybrid automotive mechanical training; there’s a variety of different programs.

2. Is the ARVETP program is designed to help get Veterans who are out work into programs that will directly train them for the work force?

That’s correct. And obviously time is of the essence. The idea is that it can be “for credit” in semester-based or online courses or it can be “non-credit”… that’s the side of the colleges that I work with. The ones that I really coordinate through the Workforce Training Consortium are the 22 two-year colleges to make sure that we’re providing quick-paced, on-demand, customized training. Some of these folks will be trained in cohorts, some of them will be mixed with the general population. It just depends on exactly what their preferences are and what their capabilities are. …

We have several partners in this project. The primary role of the two-year colleges is to provide training and certifications in healthcare-related fields and in the green energy sector. … Our other partners, we’ll be working with a 501-C3 non-profit entity known as ARVETS, and they were formed about a year or so ago under the Arkansas Department of Workforce Services, to deal specifically with intake and case-management for veterans. They work closely with the Veterans Administration, and they also work very closely with another partner of this group, which would be the Local Workforce Investment Board—LWIBS—and their One-Stop Centers and Veteran’s Outreach Officers. …

Another strong partner and component is what’s known as the Arkansas Apprenticeship Collation. They are a group of seven different guilds and trades that provide adult apprenticeship programs, state-wide. So we’ll be sharing some of the load with the AAC in terms of the 360 people we are to have trained and place within the three-year time period, they will probably be dealing with approximately 100 veterans, we’ll be dealing with 260. The other part, though, is that we obviously expect to exceed that. …

[Each college] is going to provide one main contact per college, which we prefer. Just deal with one person who can disseminate information across the campus and not have any potential situation where somebody gets bounced around. We want them to deal with one responsible person and if that person needs back-up they can get it from within campus. But we want to be very clear about customer service. …

It’s hoped and believed, and it’s normally the case, that we can really help with placement and get buy-in from companies or organizations to at least give preferential treatment—in the interview process at the very least—in order to get them on board when they have certain skills.

3. Why is it important that this grant is made available to states in order to help them bring veterans into the colleges?

The thing is that, one, we owe them.

Two, is that we need the most mature, skilled workforce that we can get. There are still jobs regardless of what the national trends look like, or even the state trends. We are above the national average here, just a little bit, by a couple of points. The thing about it is there are a lot of open jobs that cannot be filled unless people have certain skilled credentials. …

4. What kind of support do veterans receive if they qualify for support under the grant?

This was negotiated because I am a veteran and I recognize that sometimes the paperwork to get somebody eligible for the GI Bill can take a while, that’s not criticism that’s just factual in terms of the backlog—the sheer numbers of veterans. It’s got to be a difficult undertaking for the VA.

One of the things that we’ve arranged through this grant is to provide up to $1,000 of jumpstart training funding for each veteran. That would be over and on top of VA benefits. It’s separate and distinct. They would get that regardless of when their VA benefits kick in. The idea was to jumpstart them, not have our colleges or the apprenticeship have to worry about cash flow. They can immediately start them in something. …

The other thing is that for each Veteran student that gets involved in for credit or non-credit training programs, the college or the Apprenticeship Collation will get a $250 per-vet handling fee, which is in essence is processing, coordination and oversight.

We’ve done that from the get-go on top of anything you might get from the VA, through the GI Bill. The other part is that they are also eligible for up to $500 of support services, meaning transportation, child care or other particular needs. It could be books, it could be clothing, it could be a variety of things. But primarily childcare, transportation millage and gasoline, stuff like that. They’d get a $500 stipend too, that they’d be eligible for.

Our portion of the grant for training is $400,000 of the $2.5 million and that’s for the $1,000 plus the $250; so $1,250 per veteran. We’re thinking that not all the veterans will need $1,000 for training so we’re going to have to stretch that because, if you do the math, we could only train and place 320 of the 360 required if we use $1,250 for every veteran from the get-go. That’s one of the things we’re staying close with our colleagues on, is just, “Charge our account for what you know is a reasonable cost,” and that will mean that we’ll have more veterans that we can serve.

These folks, gentlemen and ladies that come back from combat—or are simply with military experience—have a lot to offer in terms of a mature workforce with strong work ethic and certainly a strong desire to obtain employment and stay there and keep growing and learning, looking at promotional opportunities. We just feel like we’ve been comfortable—all the colleges work with veterans now, so does the Apprenticeship Coalition—we’re very confident that these folks offer very few surprises in terms of their capabilities to perform well on the job in the workplace.

5. Would veterans receiving the support from the grant have access to higher education if it weren’t for the grant?

Yes, they have access to higher education because of the GI Bill, and this is a three year grant and it’s annually renewable. In other words, we have to prove ourselves once a year in order to continue in the grant program. … If a person is underway in a particular program, maybe they’re going for their registered nursing degree over a two-year or so period at a time. They would just be treated as completers for the one year, but then it would be understood they would be declared as on-going, continuing students. Until they’re really ready to do what they want to do, we’ll be doing in essence, stackable credentials. In other words, there’s a variety of different things that a person can do in a national, industry-recognized certification process. There’s a variety of different certificates that they could potentially get to really enhance their value in not just one field but more than that—but at least three if they want to. … When they’re ready for employment we want to make sure that they get it, obtain it. …

A lot of folks are place-bound for a variety of reasons. The colleges know this, they have their own service areas but they will collaborate very strongly across counties—they also collaborate across state lines. Obviously we would like to place everybody within our state, within Arkansas, but we wouldn’t want to hold them back, either. … This particular program has a lot of commonsense to it, and having the flexibility to jumpstart somebody and not wait for paperwork is a huge benefit, and also to not have it counted against them in terms of the regular GI Bill benefit. Frankly, we’re hoping that this is just the start of something bigger.

This is not intended to be a political statement at all, but we’re aware of Congress’ consideration of a Veterans Job Core that might provide help to up to a million veterans and we’re certainly in favor of that if there’s adequate funding available to do it. There’s a huge number of Veterans that are currently un-served. They may be served in certain ways, but generally speaking, they wanted a job yesterday. Not tomorrow.

We got a lot of pent-up demand and we’re looking forward to working with them, especially our partners because they’re very good at what they do. Our strongest ally on DOL grants is the Arkansas Department of Workforce Services, they are excellent to work with and help us a lot with US DOL and financial matters. …

6. Is there anything you’d like to add about the importance of grant programs set up to support veterans in higher education?

I think those types of programs are important, very important for veterans as far as the incentive.

I would think anybody that has to undergo unemployment or dislocation and then seems like their experience and sacrifice is not appreciated or respected—I think that causes some significant social issues. It’s very important to them and their families to get work as soon as possible, but meaningful work. Like I said, we always go for high demand, high wage. That’s what we’re hoping we can help people change their lives, change careers, have recognition. There very well may be some prior learning assessment involved in this process to kind of jumpstart their college credit recognition. We haven’t worked all that out but obviously it could be a factor, and should be a factor with regards to a person being incentivized to not only start but stay in a program—retain them until they can complete and then perform—or have pre-set potential employment opportunities—before they get out. In some cases in these programs we have ‘cherry-picking’, we have employers that will do job fairs for the vets, but the other part is that there are some employers that have such a huge need for skilled labor that they will ‘cherry-pick’, they will try to recruit students before they’ve completed.

Generally speaking, employers are patient about that too. Most are, because they say, “Well, we really want them to get the certificate, we really want them to complete that, and they will truly have value for us once they are truly certified.” …  Those are big deals, those are the gold standards for industry. We hope there’s a lot more of this. … We’ve already been dealing with a pretty difficult clientele and getting it done successfully, so we’re hoping the career pathways models we’ve worked out in a variety of areas will work for the vets. The thing you need more is stackable credentials and getting recognition for accomplishment as soon as possible, be it through certificates of proficiency, technical certificates or associate degrees. In this case, it will be AAS degrees.

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