First lady Michelle Obama came to Annapolis on Wednesday to praise a new Maryland law, saying it sets a national standard for removing barriers for veterans in transition to the civilian workforce.
The legislation — unanimously approved by the General Assembly — was signed into law by the governor Wednesday as Obama looked on. It requires agencies to expedite the processing for veterans of 70 professional licenses, including those for nurses, paramedics and teachers.
The measure also spells out how agencies and universities should translate military education and experience for licensing purposes and college credits. And it helps military spouses more quickly get professional licenses in Maryland.
Obama called the law "one of the best bills we've seen in the entire country. You're tackling three big issues all at once."
Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, have worked to draw attention to the needs of veterans and their families. The first lady said Wednesday that she and Biden have heard many stories of Army medics who cannot get jobs as paramedics without going through training for skills they already have. She also cited convoy drivers who face obstacles getting a commercial trucking license.
"Even with all that experience, these men and women wouldn't even be considered for entry-level jobs in their fields because they didn't have the right civilian credentials," Obama said. She and Biden have asked governors to help ease licensing requirements for both veterans and military spouses.
This year, 13 states passed laws to expedite licenses and credentials for veterans. Eight states passed laws extending that assistance to military spouses as well, according to the White House — which said Maryland's bill goes further than any other.
Gov. Martin O'Malley, who proposed the bill, said veterans "should never come home, after overcoming all the barriers they faced for us, to face barriers to employment."
Del. Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, an Eastern Shore Republican and minority whip in the House of Delegates, said the legislation drew bipartisan support because it will help the state's economy and foster job creation.
"Anything we can do for our veterans, especially our returning veterans, to help the assimilation back into the community and into the workplace is a worthy cause," she said.
The push to help veterans find jobs comes as the unemployment rate among those deployed since 9/11 has been higher than the national average of 7.7 percent. In 2012, the unemployment rate was 9.9 percent for those younger veterans and 7 percent for all veterans, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Both figures for Maryland are lower, at 7.1 percent and 5.3 percent, respectively.
The American Legion has worked for more than 14 years to make it easier for military experience to translate into civilian jobs, with little success until now, said Peter Gaytan, executive director of the national organization.
"For us as a nation to not readily recognize military education and training in the civilian workforce is not only a disservice to each member of the world's best-trained military, but it's a poor return on investment for every American taxpayer," Gaytan said.
Gaytan called Maryland's law "just one more step toward improving the transition process for our military members."
The law is designed to help military spouses like Jennifer Pilcher, a speech pathologist who moved six times during her husband's almost 17 years as a Navy pilot. With each move, said Pilcher, she had to become licensed again in a new state — often paying hefty fees and taking courses to receive training she already had.
When the family moved back to Maryland in 2007, Pilcher said, she "started a company, partly because it was taking so long to get my license."
Of the bill, Pilcher said, "It's going to change the lives of thousands."