New benefit funds tech certification, but few use it
The Department of Veterans Affairs is trying to drum up more business for a program that helps veterans pay the cost of getting certified as information technology specialists and improve their odds of finding well- paying jobs.
The benefit went into effect in March as part of the GI Bill, but few veterans have taken advantage of it. Under the provision, veterans can be reimbursed as much as $2,000 per test for taking certification or licensing exams for jobs in IT, computer engineering and other occupations. And there is no limit on how many tests they can take to increase their certification levels.
"At the simplest level, there are people who are network administrators, engineers responsible for assuring that a company's network operates properly or someone who can troubleshoot a network or reconfigure a network to improve performance," said Don Fields, senior manager of certifications at Cisco Systems Inc., one of the first companies to promote the program.
Faced with a growing shortage of skilled workers, high-tech companies are focusing on the provision's potential to increase the ranks of certified IT workers. Cisco officials, for example, see it as an important selling point for their products.
"Our goal is to make sure that those organizations that are considering Cisco equipment know they can find qualified people to operate, maintain and grow their network," Fields said.
One candidate taking advantage of the program is Hal Logan, 24, who spent three years in the Army working in military intelligence. Now living in Bradenton, Fla., Logan said the reimbursement program is the incentive he needs to keep working on his certification level. He already has spent $1,200 to attain various Cisco certifications and is continuing to increase his skill levels because the government will pick up the cost.
"I'm working harder now toward the expert level because I know I will be able to afford it," Logan said. "Before, the lack of funds was holding me back. Now the excuse that I couldn't afford it has been pulled out from under."
Certification courses have been approved by the VA for years, and veterans were able to receive up to $650 a month for taking courses. "But part of the problem was that, historically, high-tech programs are very expensive, and $650 a month may not cover what the training or the certification would entail," said Dennis Douglass, deputy director of education service at the Veterans Benefits Administration.
Under the new provision, veterans will be able to increase their government benefits to gain the skills needed to be part of today's civilian workforce. They can still receive $650 a month to pay for coursework while using the new benefit to pay for the testing.
Only a few veterans — about 130 — have taken advantage of the benefit in its first six months. But Douglass hopes the GI Bill Web site (www.gibill.va.gov) and a new marketing brochure will help get the word out.
He said the VA anticipates that thousands more will apply for the benefit once they realize it is available. Active-duty military personnel also are entitled to reimbursement for certification tests if they have been in the military for more than two years.
Robert McFarland, vice president and general manager of Dell Computer Corp.'s government sector and a Vietnam veteran, said the program is a great benefit for veterans.
"The new VA is far more in touch with veterans' needs and feels accountability to give vets a chance," McFarland said. "Veterans will be able to jump into a good living with a marketable skill."
There are several ways for vets to get certified, including taking courses and tests offered by high-tech companies that have been approved by the VA. Options include 88 courses offered by Microsoft Corp., 12 by Cisco and four by Oracle Corp.
A recent study by Gartner Inc. showed an increasing need for certification programs. The study reported that information security certification will be required for 60 percent of chief information security officers and staff in the next three years.
"In today's business climate, this new licensing and certification benefit can open doors for many veterans," said Richard Barry, director of veterans' education for the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education. "Certification is becoming particularly critical in the information security industry as employers contend with a shortage of highly skilled professionals."
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