In-Depth

Vets in Training

Schools, training centers, and other organizations are working with the VA to help U.S. veterans get the necessary tools you need to become active in the IT workforce.

Getting training and certification is hard. It takes dedication and determination. But that's where veterans have an advantage. We understand about sacrifice. What we don't always understand is how to take advantage of all the benefits we're entitled to. As a vet, I know how difficult it can be at times to get started working with the Veteran's Administration (VA). But more and more, schools, training centers, companies, and organizations are setting up programs with the VA to help veterans get the necessary tools you need to become active in the IT workforce. In this article, I'll share some of the highlights of getting training and certification for veterans reentering the workforce as qualified IT staff.

The Most Notable Benefit
I'm going to make my disclaimer right up front. As all veterans know, when dealing with the government, things can change almost immediately and without so much as a hint of notice. Also, this article isn't meant to be a bible for vets wanting to be certified professionals. Consider it a brief synopsis of some of the issues involved in the whole process. So, let's make a deal. I'll give you a quick blast of info you can use. You talk to a VA representative before jumping in with both feet armed with information that I put out here. Fair enough?

The most notable VA benefit is the Chapter 30 Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB). This benefit acts on the $1,200 initial investment made during a service member's first year of service. Under the current rates, the veteran can get $24,300 of benefits (even though that number is a bit higher as rates increase from time to time.) This is paid out in 36 months, at $672 a month, across 10 years from the date of last recorded service. It's been historically noted as the benefit that changed America.

Vocational Rehabilitation, or VR, is a benefit for those who aren't employable due to a service-connected disability, such as a major injury or illness. It's a 48-month service that can span across 12 years from the time the disability was identified. During this time, VA provides monetary support, job placement and counseling for the veteran. The whole purpose is to get the training and support necessary to overcome the employment handicap and rejoin the workforce in a way that fits the veteran's unique needs and talents.

The Process
Both benefits can provide significant amounts of assistance to veterans going into the IT world. Bear in mind that there are a lot of things to consider when activating and using your benefits.

A crucial thing to do before tapping your VA benefits is to consider the laws of your state. A lot of states have programs to help veterans. (For example, if you live in Illinois, the state will cover all your education costs, leaving the MGIB available as tax-free cash.) If you have any questions about the use of any VA benefit, you should log on to the VA Web site (www.va.gov). Better yet, pay a visit to your local VA office and meet face to face with a counselor.

For most IT professionals looking for a credential, the certification test represents the end of the ordeal. But there's more than one way to get there. You can get training at a university, training centers, or at a short-term course, such as an MCSE boot camp. But before you go to just any training center or college to get that high-speed class in SQL Server, make sure they can certify with VA. If they can't, you can't use your VA benefits to account for the costs. There should be a VA counselor affiliated with that training center who will be able to advise you on that.

What about self study? This is the method that a lot of folks use to train and certify. There are definite advantages: It takes place at your own pace and schedule. The problem is that you can't certify with the VA. That means the MGIB won't pay for your materials. The reason has to do with accreditation and how much time you spend under instruction. It would be too easy for students to lie to the VA about how much time they're allocating for study.

The key thing to understand is that the VA pays out benefits based on time enrolled in training, not on the actual cost of the course. Universities are slower, but you get more benefits; boot camps are much, much faster and accrue limited benefits for you. It doesn't matter what the cost of the course is. If you can get good low-cost training at the expense of stretching it out a couple of months, that will be to your ultimate benefit.

For example, let's say you want to use your GI Bill to cover an MCSE boot camp. The training lasts two calendar weeks, starting on Monday morning and ending Friday afternoon that next week, at the cost of $5,000. MGIB will only cover you for your time, not how much the boot camp costs you. If you were going full-time, you'd get $672 per month (based on a 30-day month). You're awarded for the number of days the course lasts. Since the boot camp is 12 calendar days (you do get credit for the weekend), you'll get $268.80 from the VA. The formula looks like this:

(Number of Days in Training/30) * Full-time Benefit = Amount
For the example above, (12/30) * $672 = $268.80

Going this route may bite you in the end.

The MGIB is meant to be a long-term training benefit, so I encourage you to use it that way. In fact, consider using it the way it was intended: as a way to get through college. Many universities offer courses in IT training, including CompTIA's A+ and Microsoft's MCSE credentials. The classes will stretch on for longer than a month, so more of the benefit is realized as time goes on. And at the end of the day, you'll spend about the same amount of money in tuition as the boot camp, get the training you need, and won't be hit with information overload to the point where you're quivering at the end of the training. You'll have the necessary time with the product that you need to take the test right and not be a paper cert.

Future Plans
VA benefits are getting better. With the announcement of reimbursement of certification testing fees, the VA has begun to work with folks who need the money to pass those MCSE exams. Essentially, you go to the testing center, take your test, get the printout, and fill out VA Form 22-1990 (available on the GI Bill Web site). Send all that into your VA office, based on your state. The addresses are here: http://www.gibill.va.gov/Education/LCVets.htm. Bear in mind that the cap is $2,000 or the cost of the test, whichever is least.

How will that affect your overall benefits? The VA has decided to convert the test cost into equivalent time. If you spent $200 to get through two tests, that would equal nine days of benefits, which would be deducted from your overall total of 36 months.

When you send in your reimbursement request, be ready to wait a little bit. Since the program is new, it can take up to eight weeks to get your money back from the VA. As time goes on and vets use this benefit, the delay time will be shorter.

Take Advantage!
On average, only a tenth of all veterans ever use their VA benefits, and some never use their GI Bill. TheVA has a lot of good things to offer folks who are ready to get out of service and into the IT world. But it won't happen unless you look into it and take advantage of what's available. Good luck to you on your training and certification pursuits! And good luck in your next form of service!

About the Author

Rick A. Butler, MCSE+I, is the Director of Information Services for the United States Hang Gliding Association.

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