Preparing Troops For The Job Wars
By Andrew Tilghman
December 24, 2012
Transition assistance to get more depth, tighter focus
The high unemployment rate among veterans in recent years has sparked a transformation in the way the Pentagon views separating service members and its own role in preparing them for life in the civilian world.
A sweeping overhaul of the military’s Transition Assistance Program is recognition that many service members — whether officers retiring after 20 years or young enlisted troops separating after a single term of service — will be facing the civilian job market for the first time and likely need basic tactical instruction.
Starting next year, all — yes, all — separating troops will be required to spend at least three days in a classroom undergoing what some refer to as a “reverse boot camp.” All commands will require troops to complete a checklist of tasks that include compiling a résumé, signing up for applicable veterans’ benefits and preparing a projected personal budget for the 12 months following their last military paycheck.
The new TAP reflects a fundamental shift in military culture. Years ago, military leaders feared that helping troops prepare for the civilian job market would hurt retention.
Today, such assistance is considered an essential part of the military mission. That stems partly from budgetary concerns; the military in 2012 spent about $1 billion on unemployment benefits to recently separated service members.
The unemployment rate for veterans remains stubbornly high and has consistently topped rates for civilians in the past few years. The November rate for veterans who have served since 2001 was 10 percent, compared with 7.7 percent for all civilians, according to the Labor Department.
The new TAP replaces the patchwork of voluntary programs offered across the force in recent years, which varied substantially from one command to another and often were criticized by troops as essentially unhelpful.
But the proposal to overhaul the transition program didn’t start at the Pentagon; it was ordered by Congress and adopted as a central campaign theme by the White House this fall.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced Dec. 6 that the new TAP is now offered at all 206 major installations worldwide.
“It goes to the heart of taking care of the people that fight for us,” Panetta said. “We owe it to them to give them the tools they need to put their lives back together and pursue their goals.”
But boosting veterans’ job prospects is also viewed as essential to the long term health of the all volunteer force, on the idea that young Americans who view the military as a career dead end will be uninterested in serving. Conversely, recruiters hope the new TAP will be a key selling point for the smartest and most talented youth.
“If we don’t do this, it becomes a national security issue for our country, both from a recruiting and retention standpoint,” said retired Marine Lt. Col. Kevin Schmiegel, who now runs the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Hiring Our Heroes program.
“Now, when a recruiter goes into a high school, he says, ‘We want you to join the Army, Navy or Marines because if you do, you will be more marketable, you will get job skills,’” Schmiegel said. “The fact is, that is not true.”
Core TAP Curriculum
It will soon be a familiar scene for all troops with separation on the horizon: a three day class, taught by civilians, limited to 50 people at a time. Classrooms will have Internet connections. And, in theory at least, your command will cut you some slack elsewhere to ensure you have time to focus on post-military preparations.
By the time troops are 60 days away from separation, commands will have to verify that they’ve met a series of “career readiness standards.” It remains unclear whether failure to comply with those requirements could delay a member’s separation date.
Inside the classrooms, troops will focus on the mechanics of job hunting. They will compile a résumé as instructors help them avoid military jargon and translate their training into language that will appeal to civilian employers.
Troops will compile a list of personal and professional references and will be expected to contact those people to seek formal permission to use their names. Experts say many job seekers procrastinate on that step, which can delay the final stages of the hiring process.
In addition to practicing interview skills, the class also will give troops guidance in how to navigate the post offer phase of negotiating a salary and working conditions.
The TAP class also will help troops draw up a detailed personal or family budget for their first 12 months of civilian life. That may be helpful for troops who, for years, have received a complex compensation package that includes housing allowances, health benefits at no additional charge and an array of subsidized services they might take for granted.
“This exercise proved to be a real eye opener for the service members,” said Susan Kelly, the Defense Department’s deputy director for the office managing the new program.
For reservists, officials are creating a specialized version of the three day program to address the unique challenges part-time troops face when returning from deployment or preparing for discharge. Reservists may be able to take the class at their local installations.
The TAP overhaul was closely overseen by the White House and involved rare coordination among the departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs, Labor and Education, as well as the Small Business Administration.
VA helped draw up a portion of the three day class about the GI Bill and other benefits. Troops will have to officially sign into VA’s e-benefits program, regardless of whether they plan to file any benefit claims.
The Labor Department handled the job preparation components; the class will provide troops with DoL “gold cards” granting access to 3,000 American Job Centers across the country, where the department provides training and resources for job seekers.
By the end of 2013, troops will use a new DoD form to prove to their commands that they have completed these preparations.
Electives Coming Next Year
During 2013, the military will start rolling out specialized TAP tracks for troops who do not intend to go directly into the job market. In addition to the three day core class, additional two day electives will be offered for troops who want to go to college or technical school or start their own business.
The school related programs will help troops research schools and identify those that offer the academic or vocational programs they are seeking. Instructors will go over the application process and provide detailed instruction on how to access post-military education benefits.
For troops thinking about starting a business, the Small Business Administration is helping set up a two day class introducing departing troops to the basics of viable business plans.
They will research potential startup costs, market demands and the overall feasibility of their proposed business. For those who remain committed, the SBA will enroll them in an eight week online class to help them develop a detailed business plan and connect with potential mentors who are established entrepreneurs.
As the TAP overhaul continues to develop, some private sector veterans advocates say their support is being underused.
Access to troops and military installations often is limited for many private sector companies and not-for-profit groups, in part based on concerns about scams and predatory marketing tactics.
But the same rules designed to protect troops and safeguard taxpayer funded programs may inadvertently limit good faith efforts to help veterans.
Schmiegel, the retired Marine, said some business leaders were disappointed that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other private sector groups were not invited to fully participate in the TAP redesign.
He also raised questions about the effectiveness of allowing some job hunting classes to be led by government civilians who may have no real experience in the private sector.
“We need to show them where the jobs are in a very particular way,” Schmiegel said. “We need to take a map and show them the cities that have sustained and forecasted job growth and then tell them the five or six industries that are driving that growth and encourage them to target those jobs in those places.” Some of that information is available at the website for the Chamber of Commerce’s Hiring Our Heroes program, but Schmiegel said he would like to see those elements fully integrated with the military’s TAP.
“Everyone has been asking the private sector to do more, but in order for the private sector to do more, they have to be given more access to service members,” he said.