The High Cost of Failure
The most recent unemployment figures for returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans - 21.6 percent in 2009 - continue a steady upward trend seen since the inception of the transition program in the early 1990s. Costs are mounting, too. The Marine Corps, for example, in 2009 made reimbursements of $105 million to unemployed former Marines, a figure projected to climb to $126 million this year. That's on top of expenditures for the transition program itself. Some back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that total DOD unemployment reimbursement costs are close to $750 million.
The officially reported unemployment rate understates the problem. The figure could be as high as 50 percent if it included veterans who didn't apply for unemployment benefits or those whose benefits have expired. For the combat arms, the rate has to be even higher. The skills acquired to become a machine gunner or a Stryker crewman are the least directly translatable into civilian occupations. Additionally, and ironically, many well-intentioned and necessary programs aimed at the treatment or prevention of combat stress, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicide have the unintended consequence of a negative impact on civilian employment.
The effects go beyond unemployment rates and monetary costs. Unemployment can trigger a progressively worsening downward spiral leading to clinical stress and homelessness. The rate for the latter among veterans far exceeds that for nonveterans. Some estimates say veterans account for 25 to 40 percent of the homeless population. Thus it appears that military recruiters' promises that military experience will have a positive effect on one's life is not reflected in the job market.
A Program Adrift in Bureaucracy
The concept of the Transition Assistance Program was seriously flawed from its inception. 1 Frantic members of Congress, concerned with the DOD drawdown of the early 1990s, initiated the program as a stopgap measure. But no single agency wanted ownership. DOD initially was opposed on the theory that it would inimically affect retention. A surprising number of senior officers still accept that fallacy. As often is the case when no one steps up to the plate, the result was compromise. Three separate agencies were assigned responsibility for military transition: DOD, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Department of Labor. As any freshman in "Government Administration 101" knows intuitively, that kind of organization is doomed.
The statute limits functions to the advisory and consultative, thereby blurring accountability at the working level. No performance measures are included in the legislation. No output metrics. Not one phrase referring to skills retraining, or practical networking, or introducing transitioning personnel to meaningful connections with employers. But plenty of bland generalities.
Making matters worse, functional responsibility is shared with the 50 states. Funds are transferred to each state to operate veterans' employment assistance centers at state employment agencies. In essence, then, the legislation diffuses program responsibility among 53 entities, all of them virtual fiefdoms that are bulletproof when it comes to change.
It is not surprising, then, that transition isn't working. Listed here are but a few more specific reasons, which, while varying in degree of consequence, are alike in typifying the systemic nature of the problem.
- In general, differences in rank and experience are not recognized. So the corporal, a high school graduate with a machine-gunner's MOS, goes through the same transition as the officer, a college graduate with an MOS in the realm of information technology.
- Endless hours are devoted to r Ã©sum Ã© preparation, when many good careers don't require a r Ã© sum Ã© .
- No skills training is available for any career, not to mention the best careers in an industry.
- The statute does not mandate any measure of program effectiveness, nor has there been any attempt to gauge achievement - even something so simple as employment-rate success.
There have been a plethora of studies, GAO reports (and others), and congressional hearings. Recommendations range from abolishing the program, to replacing it with an outsourced contractor, to transferring sole authority to one of the three agencies. Significantly, not one of those studies or reports comments favorably on the transition program. Since the statute's inception there have been few, if any sustentative changes, other than on the margins.
One exception was a report written in 2007 in response to questions asked by Congress related to Public Law 108-454 (Veterans Benefit Improvement Act of 2004). 2 The report examined the employment history of recently separated service members. It is a landmark document that for the first time attempted to measure output. What it found was disturbing: The unemployment rate among that group was three times higher than what had been reported, and of those who were employed, 25 percent had earnings below the poverty level. It concludes, flatly and plainly: "There is no association between the Transition Assistance Program and employment."
The most important part of the report cited the causes:
- Lack of translatable skills
- Inability to network
- Lack of connectivity within an organization
Professional staffing experts agree that translatable skills, networking, and connectivity are sine qua non, well-established, and published criteria of successful career placement. They are the keys that unlock the hidden job market for all employees - military and civilian.
The nature of active-duty military life and the culture of the military organizations preclude the opportunity to obtain skills on an "off-duty" basis or to network and connect with a civilian organization. Put another way, there is very little networking going on in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Or out on patrol in Afghanistan. Upon separation from active duty savings can dissipate quickly and no support infrastructure is in place to help obtain a skill. After years of absence from a hometown, former networks and connections have scattered. The options too often narrow to either finding a marginal job working alongside (or subordinate to) a former high school classmate (nonveteran) or filing for unemployment.
What Caused the Breakdown
Senior leadership, both civilian and particularly the uniformed military, has acquiesced to the Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Labor. Transition is simply not a concern. There are many reasons. One is that few in leadership positions have any personal experience with transition and would not know how to fix the system, even if convinced that it was broken. It's a lot easier simply to point the finger at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Another reason is the false perception that the set of values acquired in military service provides a competitive advantage, and therefore is a substitute for translatable skills, networking, and connectivity.The perception of most senior leaders is that the men and women in the military today represent the nation's best. It defies credulity that the men and women referred to frequently as the new "Greatest Generation" are unable to be competitive in the civilian job market. When faced with the hard facts, a surprising number of leaders suggest that signing up for unemployment benefits is intentional - a way of "resting" after an arduous tour of duty. Such perceptions are equally skewed on the flip side of the coin: A belief persists that potential employers are lined up at the gate, eager to sign up transitioning personnel at huge pay increases.
The confusion is understandable. Several factors mask the problem. A host of government and private organizations offer assistance. For the uninitiated, such offers are accepted at face value but few include output data. Many organizations simply post the job applicant on a Web site, while others refer applicants to a hiring manager. Because military service is unique, a veteran's r Ã© sum Ã© usually does not contain the keywords that are a prerequisite to a successful job search on the Internet. Referrals are not job placements. No one (other than the veteran) knows whether the veteran is hired or not. Many veterans liken the process to placing their r Ã© sum Ã© s into a dark hole; they never hear back from the referred hiring manager. Another factor masking the problem is numerous military job fairs conducted on bases and by private companies. From a public relations standpoint they are wonderful. But no one has ever attempted to measure the events' output in terms of actual job placements. Quantity is not quality. And once again, unemployment statistics don't lie.
Many military leaders frequently say that there is not enough time to train properly for a difficult mission, deploy properly, and to return home safely. Most view transition responsibility, then, as another program that has nothing to do with force readiness. At first glance, that viewpoint has validity - until costs to the armed forces are considered.
On the rare occasions that military leadership gets involved, it is usually limited to speaking before groups of corporate leaders and employers on the merits of transitioning military personnel. It is an uphill battle, as the image of the veteran as a high-quality candidate with a record of being disciplined, drug-free, and trainable is not necessarily a shared perception. The corporate view often is quite different, shaped by an absence of any real experience with military personnel. Everyone may profess support for the troops, but very few actually hire a veteran. Even the few highly touted formal programs between corporate sponsors and a particular military organization are devoid of any actual measures of employment effectiveness.
What our senior military leadership has to understand is that American businesses make hires based on a set of skills that can be leveraged immediately to bring in more than is paid out to the employee. That is simply the nature of capitalism. All other qualities of a potential employee are secondary. As difficult as it is for veterans to network and connect with the employer, the employer has equal difficulty with the military. The view from "outside" is daunting and intimidating.
On an annual basis, more than 200,000 military personnel re-enter civilian life from more than 300 bases. For a prospective employer, entry to a military base often involves going through a labyrinth of security screening that is time-consuming and seen as harassment. Contacting transition officials is often less than satisfactory, because transition personnel consider - in accordance with the statute - that their function is purely advisory; there is no incentive to assist business recruiters. One reason the Department of Labor's Internet job postings on behalf of veterans are inefficient is the lack of requisite keywords in most military r Ã© sum Ã© s.
Solution Must Come From Within
The military is the only agency that can solve the problem and has the most to lose by not addressing it. More important, the military is the responsible party. Think about it: the military attracts a young man or woman to volunteer with the promise that service will result in self-improvement. The volunteer is imbued with the military ethos and often taught to denigrate the civilian world. He becomes part of a team, and proceeds through an enlistment period as a valued member of that team - a world-class team. He is trained and led superbly, and performs magnificently. The military fulfills its promise, and the volunteer by every measure is on an upward spiral of self-improvement - until a decision is made not to re-enlist.
At that point everything changes. The volunteer becomes a short-timer. He becomes a transient and is ordered to a transient barracks. No longer a member of the first team, he marks time performing marginal tasks, is processed-out, and departs. He goes home, alone and without any of the close cohesion, loyalty, and friendships that he had as a member of the team. He responds to a few classified advertisements, finds nothing, and ends up on the unemployment rolls. That self-improvement process that began at the time of recruitment and extended throughout active duty begins to reverse the day he is marked as a short-timer.
Yet the military, at far less than what the current system costs, could create an environment at the time of transition that would continue that upward spiral, take advantage of the investment made in training, and slash the unemployment of veterans. The concept is simple. Translatable skills, networking, and connection should be provided prior to separation. Partnerships could be established with private organizations to provide training that leads to a guarantee of jobs after separation. To maintain the highest standards of quality, employers would have to virtually guarantee top careers in a particular industry to graduates. The only cost associated with the program would be a period of 90-120 days or so of lost time from military activities. Those costs are minimal compared with the costs of unemployment benefits alone, not to mention the toll veteran unemployment takes on recruitment.
A Marine Partnership Points the Way
Like all of the armed forces, the Marine Corps is frustrated with the transition program, yet few Marines have taken the time to understand just how bad it is or what might be done to overcome its flaws. The commanding officer of Camp Pendleton, Colonel James Seaton, and his successor, Colonel Nicholas F. Marano, did so. Both commanders were appalled at how quickly a former Marine can deteriorate on separation, and the effects that has on recruiting and overall trust in the armed forces. After careful deliberation and due diligence regarding a potential partner, Seaton implemented, on a "proof-of-concept" basis, a program to provide highly valued and translatable skills to Marines prior to separation.
The civilian partner selected is the International Training Fund (ITF). The ITF is a joint entity comprising the United Association of Plumbers, Pipefitters and Sprinklerfitters (UA) and affiliated contractor organizations. It trains apprentices for the pipefitting industry. In this case, the Marines provide students, and the ITF provides the training resources. The training consists of 16 weeks of welding instruction, with graduates being certified in a series of welding classifications. The instruction is provided at Camp Pendleton in ITF-provided mobile facilities. All graduates are provided state or federal certifications, recognized throughout the United States and Canada. Direct placement into a second-year apprenticeship program is made immediately on discharge.
The key to the program's success was the selection of the civilian partner. "The Standards of Excellence" promulgated by the UA is as close to the core values of the Marine Corps that a civilian organization can get. The entire UA membership - about 355,000 people in the United States and Canada - was activated. UA President William P. Hite personally got involved in establishing the program, including ensuring the assignment of first-rate instructors and equipment. The training trailers are brand new, as is all of the equipment. Two large UA vendor corporations donate personal items for students, such as clothing and tools. The UA's Hite and other senior leaders ensure that instructors provide the necessary networking. Graduates are placed in locations as close as possible to their place of residence. Future employers often observe and meet the transitioning Marine prior to discharge. Mentoring is a core value of the UA and occurs continually during training and later at the work site.
The success rate is phenomenal. Every graduate has been placed in gainful employment. Several graduates, once certification has been validated on the job site, have been advanced from a second-class to journeyman status. At that level wages and benefits are considered on par or better than that of the average college graduate, as are lifetime earnings. The success of the program is evident. Some 55 Marines applied for the 16 available slots in the fifth course of training to be offered at Camp Pendleton.
What distinguishes the program from any other government or private military employment-assistance programs is the nature of the partnership: the civilian organization that provides the training is the same organization that provides the careers. There is no space between the training and the placement. Put another way, the organization has made an investment in the veteran that ensures a commitment on the part of the hiring manager.
A skeptic could view the Camp Pendleton program as little more than a reflection of Lieutenant General John A. Lejeune's philosophy that Marines should be returned to civilian society as better individuals than they were when they entered the Corps. For at the moment, while the program does honor that legacy and keep faith with the recruiter's promise of self-improvement, it is, nonetheless, the only program of its kind. At the moment, it is operating at only one military base. And at the moment, it is limited in scope to just one industry.
But - and that is a very big but - it deserves to be and should be examined closely. For it has the potential to fix the transition program and make it truly productive. It is a revolutionary concept, scalable to expand to other industries, and adaptable to all the other armed forces. It is proof that it can be done.
2. Department of Veterans Affairs, Employment Histories Report (Bethesda, MD, 2007)