Veterans Affairs officials said they're on pace to fill all 45,000 spots in the new Veterans Retraining Assistance Program in the coming weeks.
The program is available to veterans aged 35 to 60 who need new or updated work skills to find employment. It offers a $1,473 living stipend starting July 1 to participants enrolled in college or technical school classes, as a way to help them make ends meet while they are retrained.
The initiative was a key piece of the veterans employment legislation passed last year, one of the few bipartisan measures to come out of the highly partisan Congress.
While much of that legislation focused on younger veterans — whose unemployment rate has remained stubbornly above the national average — the $1.6 billion retraining program caters to the estimated 400,000 mid-career veterans currently out of work.
Since opening the application process two weeks ago, VA officials have received about 12,000 resumes from veterans. VA Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey said nearly 80 percent of the applicants have been accepted into the program.
Applicants must not be eligible for other veterans education benefits, including the post-9/11 GI Bill, to qualify for the retraining program. Hickey said veterans rejected under that clause are immediately put in touch with benefits coordinators, to better educate them on other assistance programs.
"Most of them just aren't aware of education benefits they already have, but just aren't using," she said.
The program will expand to include 54,000 more veterans this fall.
House Veterans Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said the effort is key to ensure that "the unemployment rate among veterans in their prime earning years continues to decrease."
But he also expressed concern that VA and Department of Labor officials haven't been aggressive enough in publicizing the program. He questioned why officials haven't launched a nationwide paid advertising campaign, something VA officials said they haven't yet needed.
The program, which provides the living stipend for 12 months. Hickey said the benefit is awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis.