Partnerships needed to support the military-to-civilian transition

Military homecomings are often portrayed as picture-perfect when for many they can be harder than being away. The joy of reuniting fades, routines are disrupted and real life sets back in not long after the “Welcome Home” ceremony is over.

The eventual transition from military to civilian life can be especially difficult given that, in an instant, you’re uprooting family yet again — but this time — you (and often your spouse) are  joining a new, unfamiliar community, seeking a new identity and managing a (typically dual) career pivot all at once.

Today, these difficulties are compounded by the effects of COVID-19 on our economy. The pandemic has displaced millions of workers and quickened the pace of automation. New research suggests that in the face of these changes 40 percent of workers will need reskilling. In light of these challenges, it is more evident than ever that the government cannot support the military-to-civilian transition alone. The private, social and public sectors must come together in partnership to support this process.

To prepare for their transition, every service member must participate in the Transition Assistance Program (TAP). TAP is a series of classes intended to educate service members on their Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits, how to find a job or obtain resources to start a small business. It’s a week-long crash course of post-service life skills during one of the most dizzying moments of a veteran’s life.  

Indeed, TAP has come a long way from its inception. Congress and many federal agencies have made a number of key reforms that enhance its overall effectiveness.

Yet, we need to consider this fact: even a perfectly designed and implemented TAP will still be insufficient to fully support a successful military-to-civilian transition.

Nonetheless, almost all of the policy discussions around supporting transition are centered on improving TAP. This is necessary work, but it can’t be our only focus. Truly supporting transition requires a comprehensive set of policies that support service members well after they’ve separated from service.

How can we do this? 

Let’s begin with the most pivotal component of a service member’s transition: finding a career. Before COVID-19 struck, the veteran unemployment rate was 3.1 percent. While a great sign, this stat never told the full story of the economic wellbeing of veterans. Other data indicated there were still issues; 40 percent of veterans characterized their financial transition as difficult and two-thirds reported they should be in a better job given their skills and experience.

Finding a job out of the military isn’t a perfect metric for a successful transition. Issues like underemployment and financial insecurity can still be prevalent even when someone is employed. Policymakers should shift their focus from employment, to employability — a veteran’s ability to not only gain employment but continuously grow their career. 

New data from our work at the Veterans Metrics Initiative Study conducted by a multidisciplinary team of researchers from Henry M. Jackson Foundation, the VA and Penn State University tell us exactly where policy can focus its efforts to support more successful economic transitions. First, transitioning service members who utilized employment support programs beyond TAP were 29 percent more likely to find a job.

In addition, the study found that veterans not employed three months post-separation were at least two times more likely to find a full-time job by 15 months post separation if they made use of programs with the following training components: interviewing, resume writing and translating military to civilian work through the process of a mentor or coach. Thus, we should be investing in programs that extend beyond the TAP model.

Second, veterans who used certain programs delivered by nonprofits and other agencies were more likely to be promoted, earn raises and stay in their jobs longer. For instance, over approximately a three-year period after transitioning out, veterans who were engaged with employment programs that offered resume writing support or career exploration were 20 to 200 percent more likely to leave a job for a better opportunity during that time frame.

Veterans who used a certification program or received networking and job placement assistance were much more likely to be promoted from their first job.

Certification programs allow veterans to use their soft skills as fast-learners to gain industry-recognized credentials valuable for a job or promotion. Networking and job placement assistance ensures the right fit. They also fill a critical retraining role. As old occupations disappear and new ones arise, they prepare veterans for a quickly changing economy.

Bottom line: the services that data are showing to be most effective at positively impacting transition are not covered by TAP. 

We’re not saying TAP should cover all these services. Quite the opposite. As the pandemic and its collateral impacts continue, transitioning service members face increasingly dire circumstances for their economic transitions. The new Congress and administration must make it a priority to expand public-private partnerships with nonprofit organizations that deliver data-driven interventions during and after the service member’s separation. 

These partnerships are the future of comprehensive transition support. Policymakers should utilize data-driven decision making in crafting new grants, partnerships, regulations and incentives that will empower nonprofits to deliver evidence-informed, quality services throughout the transition process.

Our service members deserve the best we can offer as they navigate transition, especially today as we face massive economic disruption. That will require our policy to be bold. It will require new approaches continuously informed by new data. 

It will require us to reach beyond the status quo.

Dr. Nick Armstrong is the managing director for Research and Data at the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF), adjunct faculty in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University and a U.S. Army Veteran. Dr. Daniel Perkins is the professor of Youth and Family Resiliency and Policy, principal scientist and founder at the Clearinghouse for Military Family Readiness and affiliate faculty at the Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center at Penn State University.

Tags civilian life Military military to civilian life military transition Public-Private Partnerships service members TAP VA veteran unemployment Veterans

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