New name, new mission for VBA program

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The Veterans Benefits Administration has renamed a longstanding program for helping service-disabled vets. The Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Service is now called the Veteran Readiness and Employment Service. For what’s behind the change, Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to the director, Will Streitberger.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Streitberger, good to have you on.

Will Streitberger: Thanks Tom. It’s great to be here and hello to all your listeners.

Tom Temin: So this program has been around for a while, but I guess the name change follows some updates to it, or the way the service is delivered. Just give us the short version of what the program does and how it works.

Will Streitberger: Sure. So Veteran Readiness and Employment Service provides opportunities for veterans with disabilities who have an obstacle to obtaining employment to prepare for find and maintain that employment. We heard from veterans all across the country that the name vocational rehabilitation really didn’t resonate with them because they felt like vocational was non-traditional career opportunities and rehabilitation may mean that they’re broken. And so we listened to those veterans and we wanted to honor their service by renaming our program to focus on the veteran, their readiness, which they’re accustomed to in the military, and their employment success.

Tom Temin: And vocation I guess may employ the mechanical arts or that kind of thing, like vocational technical high schools — and really this program as I understand it covers professions and business startups and a lot of other fields besides traditional vocations.

Will Streitberger: That is correct Tom. So we employ veterans in all disciplines and vocations across the employment spectrum from lawyers to business people, to folks who are in their own businesses through our self employment program and non-traditional employment opportunities as well.

Tom Temin: And the counseling and training that is coming to the people in this program, are those VA employees that provide that?

Will Streitberger: Yes sir. We have just about 1000 vocational rehabilitation counselors, all trained professionals dedicated to the mission of helping our veterans prepare for. So that’s exploring their vocational interests, ensuring that those career opportunities are going to really come about in the marketplace when they’re through with their training, and then get them prepared through training and education — and then at the end of the program, we’re going to work with them very closely to help them get a perfect resume, help them with their career seeking skills and their interviewing skills so that they can get a great job with a great employer.

Tom Temin: What are the metrics for success? Do they have to say be employed in their chosen field for six months and then you can kind of close the case or do you have standards for what constitutes a good outcome?

Will Streitberger: So a good outcome, and that’s a great question Tom, what we call a positive outcome is where a veteran does get employed in the field in which they’ve been trained for. So we follow them with their employers initially for about 60 days, and then once they’ve achieved their employment with that employer for 60 days, we do declare them a positive outcome, but we do follow them for an additional six months thereafter.

Tom Temin: And if they have an interest in starting a business, and a lot of veterans go into federal contracting and start companies in that area, how does that work and how do you measure that?

Will Streitberger: That’s a great question. So one of our tracks to employment is our self employment track. And that’s a track where veterans who have an interest or an inclined, more entrepreneurial in nature, we can assist them in the planning and development of their businesses through our program. We track them for a little bit longer period of time, for more than a year, because they’re starting a new business and they’re looking for that income flow and they’re stabilizing in their business plan. So we want to be with them all throughout that process to make sure we can continue to support them while they get that business up and running.

Tom Temin: Yeah, because you know what they say about startups, your friends help you for about a year, and then you’re really on your own.

Will Streitberger: Well we are with our veterans all the way — and we have a very, very structured approach to ensuring that they’re successful.

Tom Temin: And about how many people go through the program every year, what’s your caseload look like?

Will Streitberger: We’re at about 125,000 veterans right now, and we’re really trying to get the word out, that’s why I’m so happy you’ve brought me on your program this morning to let veterans know that we’re here for them, especially now during the COVID pandemic, that we want to assist them in assessing their career opportunities and how we can support them through the Veteran Readiness and Employment Program.

Tom Temin: And you have done some updates in the way that service is delivered, such as remote sessions and so forth. Tell us about some of those, the modernizing that’s been going on.

Will Streitberger: Yes, that’s a very exciting part of what’s happening in VR&E services now, we have completely modernized our systems. One of the most tremendous assets that we’ve had during COVID is our ability to continue to provide service to veterans through our VA Video Connect Telecounseling platform, which is the same thing that our Veterans Health Administration is using for telehealth services. So veterans are able using a smart device to continue to work with their counselor face to face and continue to receive their services. On top of that we’re modernizing in all of our claims processing and our ability to execute this benefit through new case management solution. We’re employing artificial intelligence through our new electronic virtual assistant, where our veterans can communicate with their counselors without human interaction and can schedule/reschedule appointments, share documents and do other routine bidirectional communication type activities without having to pick up the phone, email, come into the office, send a fax or what have you.

Tom Temin: And the release on this mentions Dragon NaturallySpeaking, a product that converts voice input into text. I guess you must have a lot of clients that are, because they are service disabled, that would have difficulty in some of the maybe typing or speech impairments and so forth. So does this help in that regard?

Will Streitberger: Sure, with veterans in our programs who have the need for assistive devices, that’s part of our comprehensive suite of wraparound services to ensure that they’re successful. We make those assessments as they come into our program, and we will provide things like Dragon NaturallySpeaking or other accommodations that are going to support them in being competitive in the workforce.

Tom Temin: And the case management system that you mentioned, is that something that is particular to this program or is it something across VBA or maybe what VA is doing as a whole because of the whole scheduling and an appointment situation that they’re trying to get past?

Will Streitberger: So our new case management solution is a new state of the art software as a service case management solution that helps us to integrate all of our systems and work very smartly within our existing corporate system so that veterans, when they come into the program, all their information is aligned, and when things change, their address, their phone number, other critical demographic information, it’s all updated in our systems. It’s all done paperlessly, and we’re able to communicate and pay veterans for their subsistence allowance and other living expenses through that system in an automated fashion where today, we’re operating in a system that was originally built in 1997. So we’ve been living in the 20th century and we really want to bring this program into the 21st century in a manner that veterans expect us to provide that service to them.

Tom Temin: And you’ve been with VBA a couple of years yourself, but you have also been a client of Veterans Affairs in your past life, correct?

Will Streitberger: Yes sir. So I started my career with the VA in 2002, I was a participant in this programs beginning in 2002, ending in 2005. And it is a honor to serve this program as its director. Having started way back in 2002 as a program participant and having worked my way up through VA over the last 18 years, it’s a real testament to this program and how participating in it and benefiting from VR&E serice can really be a success.

Tom Temin: Will Streitberger is director of the Veterans Readiness and Employment Service at the Veterans Benefits Administration. Thanks so much for joining me.

Will Streitberger: Thank you Tom.