Agencies launch air traffic training for disabled veterans

Disabled veterans now are eligible for on-the-job training to become air traffic controllers or equipment repair technicians, the Federal Aviation Administration announced Tuesday.

The program -- a joint effort by FAA and the Veterans Affairs Department -- enables eligible veterans to train for air traffic control and airway transportation systems specialist positions. Participants also can take advantage of the VA vocational rehabilitation program, which provides counseling, independent living services and more to help disabled veterans move from military service to other suitable jobs.

"America is indeed the land of opportunity, and we as a nation are compelled to give our veterans with disabilities every chance to prosper," said FAA Administrator Marion Blakey, in a statement. "These heroes deserve no less."

Officials unveiled the training program on Tuesday at an event on Capitol Hill.

Veterans will be trained at FAA's academy in Oklahoma City, and will fulfill the same requirements as other employees in similar positions. After completing the program, the veterans will be eligible for an FAA appointment and will enter a selection process.

"Veterans make ideal employees, and they are deserving of every opportunity we can provide," VA Secretary Jim Nicholson said in a statement. "The skills and disciplines learned in the military, coupled with their dedication and maturity, make them an asset to any employer."

The program also is designed to help FAA counteract an anticipated retirement wave within its air traffic control workforce. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association has reported that veteran controllers are retiring at a rate of more than three per day since the start of the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, 2006. FAA projects that approximately 6,800 air traffic controllers will retire within the next eight years.

FAA has outlined a plan to hire more than 15,000 air traffic controllers over the next decade to stay ahead of the wave. Agency officials expect the new veteran training program will contribute significantly to the hiring goals, while helping to attain long-term career placement for veterans.

NATCA President Patrick Forrey on Wednesday applauded the training program. "Anything that can increase the ranks of trainees is something we're always in favor of," he said. "We're very encouraged by what the agency is doing."

But Forrey added that many military service members are more inclined to work with the Defense Department or elsewhere because controller jobs do not provide competitive pay.

The union previously argued that any staffing plan proposed by FAA will fail until the agency negotiates a new contract with controllers. The union and the agency were unable to reach an agreement on pay and benefits issues last year, resulting in an impasse and the forced implementation of the agency's final proposal.

Veterans with disabilities interested in the training program must apply through VA's Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment offices located in each state. More information on the vocational rehabilitation program can be found at www.vetsuccess.gov.

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