The military has transformation down to a science. For hundreds of years, it has transformed our citizen civilians into citizen warriors. The Marine Corps’ Recruit Training program is thirteen weeks, the Army’s basic training program is ten weeks long, and the Navy’s is eight. Following these rites of passage, newly minted service members then attend training in their primary military occupational specialty (MOS). These schools range from 6 weeks to several months. In fact, from the day I checked into flight school to graduation was 25 months (108 weeks). And I have to admit: my military training was transformational. I’m different for having gone through it.
This training adequately prepares us for our official military duties, but the truth is that most of us will work after the military. In fact, in the Marine Corps, the majority of Marines serve less than two contracts (less than six years)! From observing the resources (in time, money and effort) put into transforming civilians into soldiers, one would think that significant effort would be put into returning soldiers back to society. After all, even a 42 year-old Marine that just retired after serving 20 years, will likely work another 20 years, and live hopefully another 15-20 beyond that! It’s vitally important that our services return service members to society prepared to navigate the employment landscape and do meaningful work.
However, the Departments of Defense, Labor and Veterans Affairs are failing to meet that challenge. For the most part, the Defense Department abdicates the transition responsibility to the DoL and DVA, so let’s examine what those two departments are doing for our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines.
In late 2012, the 20 year-old Transition Assistance Program, or TAP, was replaced by Transition GPS. This replaced the mandatory three-day program with a mandatory five-day program. Its aim is to help service members transition from the military to either full-employment, post secondary education, or entrepreneurship. The most successful transitions I witnessed, by officer and enlisted, were planned years in advance and took longer than five days to design! But this five day period often comes in the last 6-12 months of someone’s service and amounts to “too little, too late”.
I don’t even want to guess how much the course redesign cost, but we do know a few other cost figures. For Fiscal Year 2014 (Oct 2013 – Sept 2014), the DoL budgeted (on page 81) over $250M for veteran transition programs, including $14M for the Transition GPS. Every year about 160,000 service members transition off active duty*, so that means the DoL spends about $88 per service member on outbound training! The other $236M is spent fixing the repercussions of a broken transition mindset.
In late 2012, I attended a Transition GPS test session; I can say it misses the mark. Not once during the session did we talk about the “gig” economy or the sharing economy, both of which constitute the new employment landscape. Veterans, resourceful as we are, will quickly learn about this tectonic shift when they are out of the service, but why not start early? For veterans going to school or struggling to find full-time work driving for UberX or working for TaskRabbit are viable employment options that could help pay the bills and possibly lead to other opportunities.
Beyond that, this is a fertile space for veteran entrepreneurs to innovate and start businesses. There are a myriad of online services that disaggregate a lot of the back office functions (admin, payroll, legal) that often deter enterprising young people from starting business. There hasn’t been a better time to start a business in my lifetime (that’s only since 1983)!
Employment is just one area where Transition GPS falls short. Education is yet another. During the transition program, young enlisted were encouraged to join local community colleges then attempt to transfer into full four-year universities. That plan is appropriate for many, but no mention was made of Massive Open, Online Courses, or MOOCs. Several universities offer free, online courses and many of those universities are developing a credential system so students can “carry” their credits to degree conferring programs.
Software is in fact eating the world. It is changing the way we fight wars and it changes the way we work and educate ourselves, but Transition GPS remains anything but digital or Web 3.0. Transition GPS, well intentioned and tepidly funded, does not prepare transitioning warriors because it’s foundations are rooted in 20th century employment and education paradigms.
First, senior leaders at EVERY level in every service must acknowledge that most of their troops (and in fact they) will work after the military. Transition prep should be a continuous and often addressed issue, not just one mentioned when someone isn’t selected for promotion or who isn’t selected for a second enlistment contract.
Second, design a transition program that lives in the digital age; one that spans more than 5 days and involves in-person training, experiential learning, and online education. This is after all, how the DoD trains soldiers in subject matters that it cares about such as weapons operation, aviation and submarine driving.
Third, the DoD and DVA should support and promote a strong alumni network like universities and private firms such as McKinsey have. I don’t trust the DoD to build the online platform for such a network, but paying for and supporting one would go a long way. These networks can be leveraged to support field based transition experiences and to place transitioning talent into roles that fit.
These are just first steps. The goal is to change the way that we, in the service, think and talk about “the transition”. That we do so in a way that is rooted in real-time and infused with our values, a way that is as transformational on the way out, as our experiences are on the way in. Semper Fidelis.