The Veteran Readiness and Employment (VR&E) Program (formerly Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment) is the leading benefit used by the Department of Veterans Affairs to help disabled veterans prepare and retrain for new careers.
The program is amazing, but VA has been know to struggle when it comes to clearly informing veterans about what VR&E can do. So I created this article to give a high level view of what the program is all about and what it can do.
VR&E, sometimes referred to as Chapter 31 or Voc Rehab or Veteran Readiness (minus Employment), among other nicknames, is all about helping veterans with a service-connected disability connect the dots to qualify for, gain, and maintain employment in a suitable job.
To get your foot in the door, meaning you are eligible, you’ll need at least a 10% disability rating without a dishonorable discharge. The above criteria should at least get you an evaluation to assess whether you are entitled to VR&E benefits services.
At a basic level, if you are entitled, you will likely be granted at least one of the following outcomes.
Academic and Vocational Training. Most veterans, around 80 percent, use the program achieve the employment goal through traditional education at a college, university, or technical school.
Self-Employment. This objective of finding suitable jobs includes helping veteran entrepreneurs or those too disabled to maintain conventional employment develop and become self-employment business owners.
Independent Living. For veterans with service-connected disabilities so severe that they cannot immediately consider work, VR&E offers services to improve their ability to live as independently as possible. This is called the Independent Living Program (ILP).
Job Search Assistance. And for those veterans simply wanting a quick boost to finding a new job, VR&E can help with that, too.
VR&E is one of the hidden gems that veterans can turn to when looking for assistance in finding work, getting benefits and training to help start life on the right foot.
It is important to understand what benefits and services you can receive, how you qualify, and the active role you need to take in the process to win the training or other support you need.
Veteran Readiness and Employment – Many names, same program.
When you talk about the program, be aware it may be referenced using different terms or names depending on who you speak to, but most VA employees will understand what you mean if you mention any of the following:
- VA Veteran Readiness and Employment
- VA Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment
- Vocational Rehabilitation
- Voc Rehab
- VocRehab (no space between terms)
- Chapter 31 Voc Rehab
- Chapter 31
Over the years, I have heard VR&E called seven names, and VR&E officials thought it would add the most recent name in 2021 to help clear up any confusion.
Can you tell what Veteran Readiness and Employment does based just on its most current name?
“Chapter 31” is a reference to the statutory law creating the entitlement to the program and wherein program requirements can be found. 38 USC § 3100 = Chapter 31. Any of these terms generally references the same federal vocational program.
There are also state-funded vocational rehabilitation programs managed through the Department of Labor that may also be referenced as Vocational Rehabilitation but meaning a state program.
Veteran Readiness Benefits – A longer list of what you might get.
When working with VA’s program, you can receive a variety of benefits, some are much more valuable than others including:
- Comprehensive evaluation to determine abilities, skills, and interests for employment
- Vocational counseling and rehabilitation planning for employment services
- Employment services such as job-training, job-seeking skills, resume development, and other work readiness assistance
- Assistance finding and keeping a job, including the use of special employer incentives and job accommodations
- On the Job Training (OJT), apprenticeships, and non-paid work experiences
- Post-secondary training at a college, vocational, technical or business school
- Supportive rehabilitation services including case management, counseling, and medical referrals
- Independent living services for Veterans unable to work due to the severity of their disabilities
The most common retraining service veterans receive is long-term education through colleges or universities. Vocational objectives, commonly called occupational goals, can range from X-ray technician to professor to doctor depending on a variety of factors I will address below.
ELIGIBILITY: Who is eligible for Veteran Readiness and Employment benefits?
The question of who is eligible for VR&E benefits is not always straightforward for disabled veterans with outlier cases or nuanced facts. Here is a summary of the quick, high-level points. Keep in mind, the regulations and policies, if applied correctly, can open up entitlement for a variety of other veterans, too.
- Have a disability rating of at least 10%
- Have a discharge that is not “dishonorable”
The period of eligibility lasts for 12 years from the date of separation from the military, but there are some exceptions that extend this deadline:
- You have 12 years from the date VA notifies you of a qualifying disability meaning the deadline could be longer.
- If VA finds you to have a Serious Employment Handicap, the deadline may also be extended well beyond 12 years.
- If your character of discharged barred you from applying and you are able to change the discharge character, the 12 year date starts from the date of change to that discharge.
The period of eligibility does not run if the veteran is not feasible to participate in a VR&E program for 30 days or longer due to medical conditions including disabling effects of alcoholism.
Active Duty Servicemembers are eligible if they:
- Expect to receive an honorable or other than dishonorable discharge upon separation from active duty
- Are separating from the military soon
- Obtain a memorandum rating of 20% or more from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), or are awaiting discharge from the military due to a severe disability that occurred on active duty
IF ELIGIBLE: What happens after you are found eligible for VR&E benefits?
VR&E services will then trigger once deemed “eligible” for services. The program will usually schedule an appointment to complete a comprehensive assessment called an Initial Evaluation.
The person who conducts the evaluation is called a Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor (VRC). A VRC is a professional with training as a rehabilitation counselor or some similar form of training focused on helping disabled individuals overcome impairments to employment.
During the evaluation, the VRC is supposed to (but sometimes does not) work closely with the service member or disabled veteran to identify his or her: present level of skill, various interests, job goals, and effect of disabilities on the ability to gain and maintain suitable employment.
Pre-VR&E Intake Forms
Before the first meeting, a VRC will likely forward some forms to the veteran to fill out in advance. The forms will usually include:
- VAF 28-1902w – The form contains a list of questions about the veteran’s disabilities, prior education, prior work experience, goal of the claim, and other relevant date.
- CareerScope Assessment – The veteran will receive information to take an assessment of aptitudes and interests that lasts about one hour.
- Labor Market Packet – The veteran will be asked to provide information about what vocational goals they may have as well as labor market information specific to those goals.
It is very important to take time to work through these forms completely. The information you provide will be used as evidence later to either deny or approve your claim.
Remember, when you are talking with your VRC, the person is not a therapist. The VRC is there to take down information you provide and convert it into evidence for an adjudication. It is important to take the meeting seriously.
You will bring the forms to your initial evaluation. There, the VRC will complete an initial evaluation that includes:
- An assessment of the veteran’s interests, aptitudes, and abilities using the CareerScope assessment and other information;
- An assessment of whether service connected disabilities impair the veteran’s ability to find and keep a suitable job using the occupational skills he or she has already developed
- Vocational exploration and goal development leading to employment and/or maximum independence in the veteran’s daily living at home and in the community
The most important findings that will come out of this evaluation are whether you have:
- An employment handicap
- A serious employment handicap
- Whether a vocational goal is feasible
(This process is usually conducted by the same VRC who helps with the intake meeting. Sometimes the evaluation is assigned to and conducted by a contractor VA hires to help evaluate the case. The evaluation findings are then relayed back to the VRC who will issue a decision.)
Employment Handicap. An employment handicap exists if the Veteran’s service-connected disability impairs his or her ability to obtain and maintain suitable employment. The service-connected disability must contribute substantially to the impairment.
This type of determination is not the same as evaluating whether a person can obtain and maintain “a job,” which is what many VRCs tell veterans.
Most veterans can get hired into “a job” as a Walmart greeter or construction worker or forklift driver, but that type of job may not be an example of a “suitable” occupation, which is an important distinction many counselors mistake.
Suitable. A suitable occupation is one that is consistent with a veteran’s aptitudes, abilities, and interests that does not aggravate their disabilities.
As noted above, entitlement to services is established if the veteran has an employment handicap and is within his or her 12-year basic period of eligibility and has a 20 percent or greater service-connected disability rating. Or, if the veteran has a 10 percent rating, that impairment must be deemed to result in a “serious employment handicap.”
Serious Employment Handicap. A serious employment handicap is based on the extent and complexity of services required to help a Veteran to overcome the significant restrictions caused by his or her service and non-service connected disabilities, permitting the return to suitable employment.
It is important to make note of the combination of both service-connected disabilities and non-service-connected disabilities. VR&E consistently forgets to consider the latter and often erroneously denies veterans benefits due to that persistent mistake.
In the event that a veteran is denied entitlement, the VRC will provide a list of other resources within a denial letter.
ENTITLED: Then what happens?
Should the veteran be deemed entitled, the veteran may encounter two scenarios.
First, the VRC may approve the vocational goal or objective sought by the veteran during the initial evaluation if the evidence is rock solid.
Second, the VRC may not be totally convinced about the vocational goal but grant overall entitlement. If that happens, the VRC is required to conduct vocational exploration with the veteran.
How Vocational Exploration Works
In vocational exploration, the VRC will further develop information assessed within the initial evaluation:
- Further refine transferable skills, aptitudes, and interests
- Identify viable employment and/or independent living services options
- Explore labor market and wage information
- Identify physical demands and other job characteristics
- Explore vocational options to identify a suitable employment goal
- Select a VR&E program track leading to an employment or independent living goal
- Investigate training requirements
- Identify resources needed to achieve rehabilitation
- Develop an individualized rehabilitation plan to achieve the identified employment or independent living goals
The VRC should sit down with the veteran and share information regarding the state of the current job market, pay information and goes over which services the person is eligible for. The goal is to develop a solid rehabilitation plan.
The plan laid out may be simple, focusing on resume preparation and interviewing skills.
Others will require a longer term, more in-depth plan that may include job training, pursuing a new degree, help with identifying potential employers and on the job supports.
The job opportunities may include direct placement in a position or even helping the individual to become self-employed.
The counselor should help the veteran or service member identify various resources that can help the individual to find a job. This may be various online job sites that a resume can be posted on or those to help improve current job skills. The counselor may also help to find additional resources related to housing, medical and financial needs, depending on the veteran’s present situation and disability rating.
Once a reasonable goal is established, the veterans and Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor work together to develop a rehabilitation plan.
What is a Vocational Rehabilitation Plan?
A rehabilitation plan is an individualized, written plan of services, which outlines the resources and criteria that will be used to achieve employment or independent living goals.
The plan is an agreement that is signed by the veteran and the Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor and is updated as needed to assist the Veteran to achieve his/her goals.
Depending on their circumstances, veterans will work with their VRC to select one of the following five tracks of services (see definitions for more detail):
- Reemployment (with a former employer)
- Direct job placement services for new employment
- Employment through long-term services including OJT, college, and other training
- Independent living services
One consistent error veterans fall into frequently is signing a rehabilitation plan they do not agree with or one that is pushed onto them by a counselor. If you do not understand or agree with the plan, do not sign it.
This is no different than a contract for services with any service provider in any scenario in the real world; once the rehabilitation plan is signed, you do not get a redo.
Instead, you can request to change the plan later, but changing the plan is marked by pitfalls and difficulties. So, it is vital to get it right the first time.
Once the Rehabilitation Plan is developed, then what?
After a plan is developed and signed, a VRC or case manager will continue to work with the veteran to implement the plan to achieve suitable employment and/or independent living.
The VRC or case manager will provide ongoing counseling, assistance, and coordinate services such as tutorial assistance, training in job-seeking skills, medical and dental referrals, adjustment counseling, payment of training allowance, if applicable, and other services as required to help the Veteran achieve rehabilitation.
Said a different way, once the veteran is placed in a job role or starts continuing education, the counselor stays with through the entire process. This includes checking in with the individual periodically to see how he or she is progressing and seeing if additional resources need to be brought in.
VR&E can help the active service member or veteran with a disability to find the necessary resources to get started on a new career path. Taking an active part in the process helps the veteran to get the most out of this opportunity.
What about the higher GI Bill subsistence payment or stipend?
In most cases, the GI Bill subsistence is higher than the regular VR&E monthly subsistence amount.
This pay is loosely referenced as a “stipend” or “subsistence pay” by veterans.
Luckily, a veteran participating in VR&E who also qualifies for GI Bill benefits can elect to receive the GI Bill rate of pay instead of the regular VR&E subsistence allowance.
For a single veteran without dependents, the difference for someone in Minneapolis is:
- $670.77 VR&E Stipend, or
- $1,926 GI Bill
This is just an example to illustrate how different the pay amount is per month between the two programs, so opting for the higher GI Bill stipend is significant.
To elect the GI Bill rate, the Veteran must have remaining eligibility for the GI Bill, and must formally choose (or “elect”) the GI Bill rate in writing using the from VR&E requires.
Your Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor can help you with the election.
Veterans participating in VR&E who elect the GI Bill rate are paid at the 100% rate level for their school and training time, even if their GI Bill eligibility is less than 100%.
Additional benefits are also available through the VR&E program, such as payment of all required books, fees and supplies as well as other supportive services.
Take a few minutes to learn about more VA Disability and Vocational Rehabilitation Services.