Veterans Affairs Canada is set to expand a program designed to give injured veterans priority hiring in the public service after jobs dried up due to federal cuts, CBC News has learned.

Changes to the program geared to Afghanistan veterans will likely include extending the current two-year eligibility period for medically released soldiers, according to information provided to CBC News Network’s Power & Politics.

Niklaus Schwenker, spokesman for Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney, said the department is currently working on that and other "concrete proposals" to expand the hiring initiatives and boost the number of veterans working throughout the public service.

"Our government is actively working to create opportunities for Canada’s veterans to get a good, well-paid job which we know is an essential part of a successful transition from military to civilian life," he said.

The Public Service Commission, which oversees the program, said cuts to the civil service has meant fewer jobs available for vets.

"Over the past year, most priority appointments have been of public servants whose jobs have been affected, as they have an entitlement to be appointed ahead of all others under the law," said Annie Trepanier, spokeswoman for the Public Service Commission.

"There has been a corresponding decline in the number of appointments of Canadian veterans who have been medically released. The PSC and Veterans Affairs, which has overall responsibility for policy and programs for Canada's veterans, have been monitoring the situation closely. At their request, the PSC has identified options and provided these to Veterans Affairs for consideration."

Hiring numbers low

Only 30 veterans have been hired through the priority hiring program between April 2012 and March 2013, Trepanier said. Thousands of soldiers returned home from Afghanistan physically or psychologically injured — some of them so severely that they had to leave the military.

The program – launched back in 2005 – was designed to aid the transition by giving veterans priority hiring in the public service.

Between the program launch and Sept. 2012, 8,702 Canadian Forces members have been medically released, and about 1,027 have been hired for positions in the public service.

'We shouldn’t be putting them at risk because of a hiring freeze or reducing the size of the public service.'— Liberal Senator Romeo Dallaire

The bulk of them, 741, were at the Department of National Defence while most other departments had hired only a small handful, if any at all, according to the figures obtained by Liberal Senator Percy Downe.

Downe and retired general Romeo Dallaire called it "absolutely critical" to extend the eligibility period because many Afghanistan veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and need time to stabilize.

"Keeping it limited to two years after they’ve been deemed to be able to be employed without giving them the flexibility of ensuring the depth of the injury is corrected was wrong," he told Power & Politics guest host Rosemary Barton.

"We need more time, and the limitation of the two years is artificial… that two-year restriction is something that comes out of an insurance policy, not out of a policy of wanting to ensure that we’re helping veterans for the length of the possible time that they can be employed."

Dallaire said numbers are low because many departments are not following the policy, there is not enough training to make the ex-soldiers competitive. He also said there should be a provision so that veterans are "moved aside" by other employees affected by cuts.

"We shouldn’t be putting them at risk because of a hiring freeze or reducing the size of the public service," he said.

Helmets to Hardhats — another program launched in September 2012 and designed to help former soldiers find work in trades —has registered 977 veterans and 77 employers and contractors but so far, only 18 jobs have been confirmed filled through the program.