VA's tech training program for vets is up for renewal, but backers want more accountability

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A provision in a recently introduced legislative package would extend VA’s VET-TEC training program through September 2026 while seeking to address employment disparities.

A legislative package introduced earlier this month includes a provision to extend a popular tech training program for veterans but seeks to use a short-term renewal as a springboard to a longer-term reauthorization. 

Bipartisan leaders on the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs committees rolled out the bill — known as the Senator Elizabeth Dole 21st Century Veterans Healthcare and Benefits Improvement Act — on May 14 to address a number of stalled legislative priorities. 

Among these provisions was a renewal of the Veteran Employment Through Technology Education Courses program, or VET-TEC, which expired in April. The five-year pilot provided eligible veterans with financial assistance to take high-tech education training courses with approved providers without having to use their GI Bill benefits. 

Rep. Juan Ciscomani, R-Ariz., who introduced this month’s legislative package, previously championed a bill to permanently reauthorize the program. His proposal overwhelmingly passed the House in a 409-9 vote in May 2023 but did not receive a vote in the Senate before VET-TEC expired last month.

In an interview with Nextgov/FCW, Ciscomani said he supports the program’s renewal because it provides veterans with access to new career opportunities. He noted that retired servicemembers have said it's easy for them to move into law enforcement careers after they leave active service, but that those hoping to move into technology or cybersecurity roles often face employment barriers.

“This program tackles that and starts giving our future veterans the tools and the training to be able to make that transition and be able to explore a career in fields that they traditionally maybe didn't think they could go into,” he said.

VET-TEC’s renewal comes with some caveats

Lawmakers were reportedly discussing a five-year extension of the program as part of bipartisan negotiations, although the provision included in the legislative package would only renew the program through September 2026. 

Ciscomani’s bill that passed the House last year would have also allowed 8,000 veterans each fiscal year to enroll in the program; the recent provision lowered that figure to 4,000 participants each year. 

Ciscomani cited cost constraints as a factor in the program’s shortened continuance but said “by doing it in this fashion of two years, and then extending it maybe five after that, we can ease into it and continue to prove the success of the program.”

Alicia Boddy, the vice president of partnerships at the nonprofit America Succeeds, founded the VET-TEC Working Group in 2019 to streamline communication between approved program providers and VA. 

She said she was happy to see efforts to renew the program but that “there are also enough changes in this new legislation that it's going to be a lot of work for the VA, especially to stand this program back up and then only have two years.”

“It's going to be so important that we approve both veterans that are intent on getting high tech jobs quickly and training providers that are actually connected to those jobs because we cannot hover,” Boddy added. 

Early assessments of the VET-TEC pilot were largely positive, although officials are still crunching the data to determine the overall effectiveness of the initiative. 

In an October 2022 report on VET-TEC, the Government Accountability Office called the pilot “promising” and pointed to the high completion rate for veteran participants. The watchdog said, however, that VA lacked “consistent, clear, and measurable program objectives” for assessing it. 

John Sawyer, director of GAO’s education, workforce and income security team, told Nextgov/FCW that the agency is currently working on a final report on the VET-TEC pilot that is expected to be released this fall. Both the 2022 report and the one underway were required by the original bill that enacted the pilot program. 

“The new project will be looking at the alignment of the pilot with the pilot design criteria, in particular lessons learned from the pilot, a summary or analysis of the comments veterans participating in VET-TEC submitted to the VA and the extent to which the VA conducts provider oversight,” Sawyer said. 

Low employment rates for participants

William Hubbard, the vice president for veterans and military policy at the advocacy group Veterans Education Success, played an important role in the creation of the VET-TEC program. 

Back in 2017, when he was the vice president of government affairs for Student Veterans of America, Hubbard was working on efforts surrounding the Forever GI Bill. He said then-Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., was intrigued by the idea of short-term credentialing programs for veterans hoping to get into the tech sector and engaged with his organization about the idea. These discussions ultimately helped guide McCarthy toward introducing the VET-TEC Act, which was signed into law later that year.

While still a proponent of VET-TEC, Hubbard expressed concerns about gaps in the program’s effectiveness that were revealed during the pilot phase, which he said lawmakers must address as they look to extend the program. 

He cited the disparity between graduation and employment rates for veterans who participated in the VET-TEC pilot, noting that 84% of participants graduated from the courses but that employment rates dropped as the program progressed — culminating, he said, in approximately 15% of veterans in the program’s last year receiving employment.

Sawyer would not confirm the figure Hubbard cited but said GAO is “following up with VA on the employment rate trends that we’ve noticed over the 5-year duration of the pilot,” adding that the watchdog wants the department to “explain the reason for that trend we’re seeing.”

Sawyer also pointed to a still open recommendation from GAO’s 2022 report for VA to develop an employment rate calculation that is consistent with government and industry practices. At the time, VA’s calculations pegged the pilot’s employment rate at 66%; GAO said it came up with a 46% employment rate instead. 

Hubbard said he believed one reason for the gap between graduation and employment rates is a breakdown in communication between what companies are looking for and the types of courses offered through the program. The number of tech companies laying off workers in current years has also led some firms to change up their hiring approaches.

Boddy agreed, saying “we have to figure out how to get employers and training providers talking to each other.” 

Ciscomani’s VET-TEC provision takes steps to enhance the program’s employment rate, including calling for VA to prioritize providers “from which at least 70% of graduates find full-time employment in the field of study of the program during the 180-day period beginning on the date the student graduates from the program.”

The provision also says the VA secretary should develop criteria for approving providers to participate in the program, including taking into account “the job placement rate, in the field of study of a program of education,” for veterans who participate in courses.

Streamlining the program

One proposal Hubbard floated to improve the current VET-TEC renewal provision is to place more of an emphasis on providers receiving VA funding based on participants receiving employment. Currently, providers receive 25% of the cost of providing the courses up front, an additional 25% when veterans complete the program and 50% when veterans receive employment during the allotted post-graduation time frame. 

Since VET-TEC is designed to provide veterans with employment in the tech sector, Hubbard said “it should be 25% [paid to participants up front] and then 75% on employment.”

Ciscomani said that accountability measures, such as emphasizing post-training employment rates, will help limit disparities and allow for future iterations of the program to tighten up additional gaps.

“We can make improvements every time that it sunsets, we can make the tweaks that we need, we can increase the accountability in some areas, we can invest more in other areas that are actually working and get the feedback from our own veterans that are going through this as well,” he said.

Boddy also said VA can do more to oversee progress, since the program’s management is currently spread across the department. She said one VA team in Buffalo processed students for the program, while another based in D.C. approved providers and then another component took on the employer-facing side of the pilot. 

Boddy said she pushed for the VET-TEC provision included in the bipartisan legislative package to include a management position for the program to help address some of these oversight concerns. 

“They did put in a line that the VA could work with a working group or a thought leadership group,” she said, but added that it essentially tells the department “you're allowed to work with the VET-TEC Working Group, but there's no money attached to it.”