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Veterans, employers and universities should take advantage of Forever GI Bill

Soldiers training at Fort Bragg, N.C.

Soldiers training at Fort Bragg, N.C. Credit: TNS / Carolyn Cole

On August 16, President Trump signed the Forever GI Bill, a piece of legislation that the House and Senate passed in a rare unanimous vote. Beyond the historic nature of that vote, the law stands out for its potential to help veterans and their family members secure good-paying jobs that draw upon their military skills. The legislation also could be a boon for employers and universities seeking to tap the talents of members of the American military transitioning back into civilian life.

The successful transitions of veterans is a priority for the George W. Bush Institute since 1 million service embers are likely to be returning to civilian life over the next five years. Their military service has required them to solve problems in intense situations, run supply chains across the world, and work with people from diverse cultures, among many other duties. Those experiences can translate into civilian life, if veterans are given the opportunity.

Beyond the historic nature of that vote, the law stands out for its potential to help veterans and their family members secure good-paying jobs that draw upon their military skills.

The Forever GI Bill stands upon previous efforts in Washington to help veterans enter the workforce. Before this legislation, Congress passed the Post-9/11 GI Bill. That law was a major update of the legendary GI Bill of Rights that sent so many veterans to college after World War II. The Forever GI Bill builds upon these influential measures in several ways.

First, it removes the expiration date for veterans as they pursue education or training. By not having to finish their schooling by a particular date, veterans will be able to pivot and learn new skills as the economy keeps changing.

Second, the law expands benefits to more reservists and all Purple Heart recipients. That’s significant because these men and women served their country honorably in combat but their time was cut short due to being wounded. This fulfills our responsibility to the service members who gave the most during these conflicts.

Third, the legislation will help students who are pursuing STEM degrees. Specifically, it will add an extra year of eligibility to open up the option for an advanced degree that will make veterans more employable.

Each of these reforms, along with other aspects of the bill, will reduce the financial barriers that keep too many veterans from returning to college or some form of postsecondary education. A report by the Student Veterans of America and the Institute for Veterans and Military Families shows that student veterans are more likely to be older, married and have children. They also work full- or part-time, and are often the first generation in their family to attend college.

These variables make the cost of an education difficult to stomach, which is why the Forever GI Bill matters to the nearly 50 percent of service members who are entering higher education after their service ends. The law provides an inexpensive, or even free, path toward education or training.

What’s more, the STEM emphasis dovetails with the push by the Department of Veterans Affairs to invest in helping veterans pursue the fields of science, technology, engineering or math. The cost of the effort, $3.5 billion, will look daunting to some Americans. But STEM degrees will pay off tenfold for veterans, expand the workforce in these dynamic parts of the economy, and lead to greater productivity for the country as a whole.

Proper certifications and technical training can also create pathways to opportunities. Welding, advanced manufacturing, plumbing and electricity are all fields that do not require college degrees but have attractive starting salaries. These fields also have an aging population that is on brink of retirement in the next 10 years.

The Forever GI Bill can help the country reckon with this shortage, while it benefits the 25 percent of veterans who are entering the workforce without a four-year degree. The measure provides an opportunity for veterans to enter an apprenticeship program that trains them for a job. The programs may be offered through an employer or a trade school, both of which could make them


Importantly, the legislation will finance parts of the apprenticeship or training. It also will pay the veteran an allowance for housing while in training. The lack of a place to live is a common problem with many apprenticeship programs.

The Trump administration is rightly pushing for apprenticeships and other training programs. That effort, along with the new legislation, could help with the Department of Defense’s budget.

Defense must pay unemployment insurance to any service member who leaves service without lining up a job. A better strategy would be for the department to partner with trade schools to offer training while the service member is still on active duty.

That approach would offer real-world training for veterans and ensure they can make the best decision upon leaving the military. What’s more, Defense would not be stuck with a large unemployment bill.

We often talk about the military leading to greater socio-economic mobility. But what happens after that service if you can’t climb the economic ladder? Veterans have picked up a wide-range of problem-solving skills through their military service. Employers and universities alike now have a new way to make sure they take advantage of those skills.

Jeffrey J. Cleland (USMC, retired) is the manager of research and policy for the Military Service Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas. This is distributed by