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Want to decrease unemployment among veterans? Here's how.

As Memorial Day approaches, there’s a powerful way to unleash the power of veterans: by making it a national imperative to ensure today’s servicemen and women are prepared for post-service job success. Unemployment rates among veterans have hit their lowest point since the great recession – 4.6 percent according to the most recent Labor Department data. Now, we must work to close the remaining gap by activating the talent of all veterans and ensuring they’re equipped to thrive in today’s economy.

The passage of the G.I. Bill more than 70 years ago marked a transformational step to that end, providing millions of service men and women access to the education beyond high school that is critical to landing a good-paying job. Meanwhile, programs provided through campuses, nonprofits and government have cropped up over the years to provide needed supports to propel veterans’ success in higher education.

It’s time to go a step further. We must focus on creating pathways for veterans to translate the experience they gained through military service into something meaningful in the job market. That might include credit towards a college degree, or another high-quality credential, such as a license or certificate.

Driving the need for this shift are both the changing work landscape and the demographic makeup of student veterans. By the end of the decade, more than two-thirds of jobs will require an education beyond high school, and the postsecondary demand is not limited to bachelor’s degrees.

An analysis by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, for example, showed as of 2012 there were 29 million jobs that require credentials other than a bachelor’s degree– such as licenses and certifications in skilled trades—paying $35,000 or more annually. These account for one of every five jobs in the American economy and nearly half of all jobs that pay middle class wages.

Many military members gain the knowledge and skills needed for these types of jobs, not through a formal education program, but on-the-job and in uniform. What they need is a way to seamlessly translate their experience into a credential that demonstrates to employers they have the skills for open positions.

At the same time, the learning that takes place in the military also can be applied, in many cases, towards veterans’ fields of study for a four-year degree. We should be able to capture this learning and translate it into college credit so that veterans can accelerate the process towards earning a degree.

This is especially important, since 87 percent of student veterans are older than 25, some 42 percent work full-time while in college, and more than half care for dependents. Because of this, completing higher education efficiently is a key priority.

Efforts are underway– both through the armed services and through higher education institutions—to help translate veterans’ military experience into labor-market value. In 2014, the Air Force launched an online program enabling active-duty members to earn industry-recognized certifications and licenses before leaving the military. This year, the Air Force dedicated nearly $500,000 to cover the cost of credentials through the effort, which will lead to veteran employment and reduce the need for spending on unemployment benefits.

Some higher education institutions, too, have pioneered solutions. Empire State College, part of the State University of New York system, offers prior learning assessment, through which students compete a set of rigorous evaluations to capture what they gleaned from military service—as well as work and civic service—and translate that knowledge towards a degree.

We need to build on what’s working by creating incentive, both for the military and for higher education institutions, to offer programs such as these. The federal government needs to ensure the military can fund programs, such as the Air Force initiative, that give veterans access to the credentials they need. Higher education, meanwhile, needs to use learning, rather than time spent in a classroom, as the key metric for student advancement towards a credential—a shift that would help veterans and other adult, working students translate experience into academic value.

Making these changes is important now. We’ve made progress in reducing veteran unemployment and maximizing the G.I. Bill. Making military experience truly count towards a job is the logical next step. Let’s use Memorial Day as an opportunity to make that commitment to our veterans—and fully leverage them as an asset to our national talent pool.


Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation and author of “America Needs Talent: Attracting, Educating & Deploying the 21st-Century Workforce.”