ATLANTA -- Unemployed veterans may be heading back to school in mass under a federal program to get out-of-work veterans trained and back in the job market.
Officials at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs say there has been an enormous response to a new skills-based program that pays for up to a year of education toward an associate degree or a non-college-degree or certificate.
In fewer than seven weeks since the VA began accepting applications for the Veteran Retraining Assistance Program (VRAP), 27,080 unemployed veterans have applied. That's more than half the maximum amount the VRAP program will allow in its first year, VA spokesman Randal Noller said last week.
The VA introduced the program on May 15 and received 12,000 applications within the first two weeks of the announcement. But while the response is encouraging, Noller said the VA will continue to promote the program until every slot is filled.
"We are hopeful that we leverage all 45,000 'slots' for FY [fiscal year] 2012 but are not letting up on our outreach efforts until all 99,000 slots through the end of the program are approved," Noller said in an email.
The program is first-come, first-served for qualifying veterans between the ages of 35 and 60 who are unemployed at the time of the application. Veterans who are currently receiving unemployment benefits or are enrolled in a federal or state job training program do not qualify.
This clause disqualifies most veterans who recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan because they qualify for other forms of relief including the Post-9/11 GI Bill, Montgomery GI Bill, Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Assistance that can provide similar assistance, Noller said.
Veterans who do qualify can receive up to 12 months of education assistance in high demand areas including health care, management and legal services. The VA will approve up to 45,000 veterans through Sept. 30 of this year and up to 54,000 veterans in the next fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. The program runs through March 2014.
"It's a very new and very fast-moving program that we're getting out there to help veterans as quickly as possible," Noller said.
So far, 13,083 applications have been approved and thousands more pour in every week. The VA approves batches of applications every 15 to 25 days. While it's likely that the program will reach its max by summer, Noller said it's too early to determine an exact date and veterans should continue to apply.
One recent applicant was Chester Dixon, who served in the Army's 82nd Airborne Division in the 1970s.
Dixon, 60, barely made the cutoff age. The veteran, just a month shy of his 61st birthday, said age isn't a factor when it comes to returning to school, especially when it could result in full-time work --something he hasn't had in five years.
Dixon lost his job in 2007 and said things have been tough. Despite spotty part-time work in warehousing, finances have been strained and his wife has had to carry the burden of supporting them. A few weeks ago, she retired after 42 years in teaching.
A full-time job would make all the difference, he said.
"It will take some pressure off my wife," Dixon added. "Right now I'm doing the minimum and I would like to do more."
Dixon applied for VRAP at the North Metro Career Center in Atlanta, one of 68 centers in Georgia that can help veterans apply for the program.
Steve Jennings, state veterans program coordinator for the Georgia Department of Labor, said they act as facilitators at organizations like the one Dixon visited.
"We'll sit with a veteran customer and help them navigate the process. In the very end, once they complete their schooling we come in on the back end of it and provide job services and of course help them find employment," Jennings said.
If approved for VRAP, Dixon said he plans to study "water waste" or "sales," two categories listed as high-demand fields.
The program is funded through the VA. The amount is equal to the monthly full-time payment rate under the Montgomery GI Bill-Active Duty program, $1423 a month. In two years, The VA will spend a little above $76 million to fund the program. The total is about $17,000 for every veteran, of the 99,000 set to be in the program. The amount will skew lower if some veterans opt for programs for that take less than a year to complete, Noller said.
Dixon said he knows he's not alone. At job fairs across the country he said he's seen unemployed veterans from all eras.
It's a challenge but he encourages himself to stay optimistic.
"I stay positive because I need to be." Dixon said about employment. "You have to continue to search and not give up."
The unemployment rate for veterans 18 and older was an average of 7.7 percent as of May 2012, one tenth of a percent below the national rate for non-veterans at 7.8 percent according to the data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.