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Protect hiring preference for veterans

Haverhill Gazette - 12/7/2017

Finding work as a police officer or firefighter isn't always easy. Openings in local departments can be scarce. Still, it's an area where it helps to have served in the military, as many government hiring managers give preference when filling those jobs to veterans.

Many do, but not all. The advantage is fading these days as more mayors and town managers look to bypass old rules for government hiring, including ones that demand preferential treatment for vets.

It's not a positive development. Not only are veterans often uniquely qualified for public safety jobs, our national government has put up hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of taxpayer dollars for their training and education.

It's a shame, and simply wasteful, not to leverage that resource.

And the trend underscores the importance of what lawmakers, including Rep. Ted Speliotis, D-Danvers, are doing to backstop the veterans preference. Speliotis and others are advocating a bill that requires local governments that slough off the old rules of civil service to still give extra consideration to men and women who've been honorably discharged from the military.

"Any alternative to civil service ought to require some form of recognition of these brave men and women," he wrote recently in a letter published in area newspapers.

The idea of a veterans preference, at least within the federal government, dates to the Civil War, notes Gregory Lewis, a professor of public policy at Georgia State University, for a column published by the current events website The Conversation. Policies were strengthened after both world wars such that veterans were given extra credit on numerical hiring scales used to size up candidates for government work. Disabled vets got double the advantage.

In Massachusetts, the process of filling jobs with the state and local governments have extended similar preferential treatment to those who've served, through the civil service system. Currently, 145 of 351 cities and towns in the state subscribe to that system.

The problem emerging is a trend away from civil service. Local governments are seeking and getting the state's blessing to bypass the rules, which local officials claim constrain their hiring decisions. Diversity is among the top reasons cited by mayors and town managers seeking flexibility. Civil service rules hamstring urban departments, for instance, in efforts to land minority candidates, in part because veterans who march to the top of hiring lists aren't always minorities.

Boston Police Commission William B. Evans is among those who've complained about the constraints of civil service while trying to diversify. Last spring, he told the Boston Globe that even though his three brothers are veterans, he would rather have a different system of rewarding their service. "They gave up a significant part of their life defending this country. I don't believe that they don't deserve what they get, but I believe we have got to find a better way ?," he told the newspaper.

Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, recently told Eagle-Tribune Statehouse reporter Christian Wade the civil service laws are "rigid and antiquated," and stand in the way of local governments trying to "modernize."

Efforts to make local police and fire departments more reflective of their communities are laudable, but it would be a mistake to somehow allow that important objective to disrupt the consideration given veterans.

The two needn't be mutually exclusive.

Indeed, a report earlier this year by the Pew Research Center suggests the military is nearly as diverse as the rest of the country. Racial and ethnic minorities represent 40 percent of the 1.3 million members of the active-duty military - and about 44 percent of the broader population ages 18 to 44. African Americans are more represented in the military - about 17 percent of the active-duty service - than in the population as a whole.

That's not to say the applicant pool for local police and fire jobs is always diverse, but it does suggest that members of the military can give city and town halls options to diversity.

What cannot be overlooked in that effort is a qualified labor pool ready to sign up for some of the most taxing, stressful jobs in government. Nor can we forget our obligation to those who have dutifully served this country.

 
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