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Two birds with one stone

USDA works with veterans Apprenticeships open doors in agriculture

USDA is taking a shot at two major targets with a new program announced this week designed to provide greater food safety to U.S. consumers while opening the doors to veterans looking for gainful employment.

It's all part of the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), which operates the agency's registered national apprenticeship program combining on-the-job training with theoretical and practical instruction in the classroom and online. Apprentices who complete the paid training program will meet the qualifications for a position as a USDA agricultural commodities grader.

But Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says he has a new approach to the program this year, an effort to    target qualified U.S. veterans to sign up for the program and become commodity graders, a key role in USDA's mission to protect American consumers.

While the program is not limited to veterans, Vilsack said it lends itself to returning or out-of-work veterans looking for a new career in civilian life.

SUPPORTING VETERANS

"USDA is committed to supporting America's Veterans," said Vilsack during an announcement ceremony Oct. 3. "Our new apprenticeship program will give them a chance to join a talented pool of USDA professionals and leaders who ensure America's food maintains its quality and safety. If they are passionate about a career in agriculture, we want to help them achieve it."

According to official statistics, the unemployment rate of young military veterans ages 18 to 24 reached 29 percent in 2011. The Rand Corporation conducted a study in 2011 that sought to put that statistic in perspective by examining the historical time-series of veteran unemployment, comparing the veteran unemployment rate to that of non-veterans, and examining how veteran unemployment varies with time since military separation. Between 2000 and 2011, younger veterans were, on average, 3.4 percentage points more likely to be unemployed than similarly situated younger non-veterans. However, this difference between veteran and non-veteran unemployment falls rapidly with age and time since military separation.

Since 2011, progress has been made to lower the veteran unemployment rate to more respectable levels, but evidence indicates many returning veterans are still struggling with employment issues. Vilsack says USDA is committed to addressing those problems with this new initiative.

The program represents the partnering of USDA, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) and the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA). The Dept. of Labor approved the curriculum and registered it as an official source for job training and the VA approved the use of Veterans Benefits, which may include a monthly housing allowance and an additional stipend for books and supplies for eligible apprentices. Many veterans can also apply for separate benefits through the VA's Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment program.

OPPORTUNITY TO SERVE

"Veterans, by their very nature, are always looking for opportunities to serve. This innovative apprenticeship program allows more of our nation's veterans to continue their service out of uniform in the important mission of USDA," VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald said.

AMS's Specialty Crops Program will hire apprentices who will receive 12 months of blended technical training on specialty crops inspection, grading and certification, and developmental training on professional skills, such as interpersonal communications and leadership.

Apprentices who complete the program will have achieved critical career milestones—A nationally recognized DOL Apprentice Accreditation and skills and competencies for professional success.

At USDA, the new apprenticeship program will also serve as the pilot for a new online interactive learning management system, which AMS will use to standardize training for all Specialty Crops Inspection employees. The learning management system will also deliver online training components and share real-time data with DOL and VA.

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Vilsack says USDA employs more than 11,000 veterans and since 2009 has provided more than $505 million in direct farm loans to help 7,416 veterans start, maintain or grow their farming operations.

More information about the new apprenticeship program and other opportunities is available from the AMS at: www.ams.usda.gov/careers.

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