MARSHALL - U.S. Sen. Al Franken on Tuesday applauded Minnesota for its efforts to help returning troops reintegrate back into a normal society, such as the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon campaign, but knows there is plenty more states should be doing to help ease the transition.
"We have high unemployment among our vets coming back," said Franken, D-Minn. "We have people who have some special needs. I've learned that in states with bases they actually have lower unemployment. There's a community that's been built."
Franken made a stop in Marshall on Tuesday to speak with Minnesota National Guard and state employment officials at the Marshall Workforce Center to discuss efforts to support military families and help returning veterans find jobs.
Photo by Deb Gau
U.S. Sen. Al Franken, at far right, met Tuesday with representatives of the military, family support services, the Minnesota WorkForce Center and the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development to discuss employment and support programs for veterans. Speakers at the briefing included Carmen Brunsvold of family readiness support, and Maj. Aaron Krenz, chief of deployment cycle support for the Minnesota National Guard.
Franken said from a cultural standpoint it sometimes might be harder for employers to understand the skills soldiers acquire in the military and that can make it more difficult to communicate in an interview setting. He said soldiers who have served overseas are likely to discuss what his or her unit did while serving, while the employer wants to know what that particular person did.
"We have this all-volunteer military and the Guards here and these people feel much more isolated, I think, from the rest of the public," he said. "The reintegration process is about interviews, writing a resume. It's hard for a lot of these guys."
Franken said some companies, including local ones, are having problems finding enough skilled workers, and in a March 12 editorial he co-wrote with Yellow Medicine County Commissioner Ron Antony, they touted a recent workshop in Marshall where attendees received direct services through partner programs in the state.
Franken also cited a Department of Employment and Economic Development study that showed 50 percent of manufacturers in the state have jobs they can't fill, which has created what has come to be known as the "skills gap." He said there are about 4-and-a-half million jobs in the United States that are waiting to be filled.
"One of the things I observed was the partnerships between the manufacturing and health care industry or educational institutions with the workforce boards are really accomplishing something," he said. "Our men and women coming back from serving are incredibly disciplined and a lot of them have done work with sophisticated equipment. They've worked with teams and they've done it in sometimes difficult conditions, obviously - it's much easier to build a road in Marshall than in Kandaharbecause there's no incoming."
Franken has also worked to promote more non-traditional assistance for veterans through his Service Dogs for Veterans Act, which established a pilot program with the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide veterans with injuries and those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder with service dogs. The act became law as part of the FY2010 Defense Authorization bill.
"We have men and women returning with invisible wounds," he said. "The issue is how to embrace that without stigmatizing these vets. They can still do a job and still contribute. We do have a high unemployment rate among vets coming back who are in the 18- to 24-year old range, but we also have a high unemployment rate among all 18- to 24-year-olds. This is something we owe these men and women who put everything on the line for us."
Franken confident farm bill will pass
With the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 set to expire Sept. 30, legislators in Washington are pushing to get the 2012 Farm Bill passed as soon as possible.
Franken is optimistic a bill will be passed this year.
"I think we are gonna get it done," he said. "I think the broad outlines of the Farm Bill were written months ago. I think we know sort of the outlines of it already."
Franken said the core of the Farm Bill will be cutting direct payments - which he said most lawmakers have "made their peace with" - and strengthening the farm safety net. He's confident both ag committees will try to strengthen crop insurance and countercyclical programs so "farmers can continue farming."
Some in Congress want to avoid a simple short-term extension of the 2008 Farm Bill because it wouldn't reflect the new financial environment facing the country and they believe it's the current elected officials' duty to do so before the election brings in new lawmakers.
Franken has taken the lead and is working with Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin on the Renewable Energy for America Program (REAP) which, he said, helps Minnesota, by giving grants for rural energy projects.
"In Minnesota, we have wind, we have biomass, so this is a program we would be reauthorizing," Franken said. "We want to make sure it continues and is well-funded and maybe some of the red tape is eliminated."
Franken also wants to draw out and utilize programs that encourage young farmers to stay in the business. He says the average age of farmers is going up and says more ag-related training and resources need to be provided for young people to help them to either get into farming or stay in farming.