Daniel Strong, left, of the Wiesbaden, shares Army transition resources with Staff Sgt. Lester Richmond. (Army)
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Major upgrades to the Transition Assistance Program are underway this year as the Army strives to make it easier for departing soldiers to find meaningful employment in a tough labor market.
The program is adding two major elements: education and training tracks to help soldiers meet their goals, and a check to make sure transitioning soldiers are ready to go.
Key elements of the re-engineered program, which has expanded its facilities and staff threefold in the past year, include pre-separation counseling; developing of a 12-month post-transition budget; a gap analysis between a soldier's military skills and civilian employment preference; and making an individual transition plan.
The TAP core curriculum also includes a benefits briefing from the Veterans Affairs Department and a workshop sponsored by the Department of Labor.
The Army expects more than 130,000 soldiers will receive transition services this year, with about 60 percent of those soldiers coming from the active component and the remainder from the National Guard and Army Reserve, according to Walter Herd, director of the Army Career and Alumni Program.
Historically, about 85 percent of the soldiers who leave Army service go to civilian employment, and the remainder go to college and other activities.
Soldiers will be given the option of selecting from one or more two-day tracks within the TAP curriculum to help achieve their transition goals:
• An education track for those pursuing a college education; a technical training track for those seeking job-ready skills and industry-recognized credentials in short-term training programs; and an entrepreneurship track for those wanting to start a business.
The education track will be piloted at Fort Carson, Colo., and Fort Sill, Okla., in March and April, while the entrepreneurship track will be piloted at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Va.
The program will be implemented Army-wide Oct. 1.
• A quality-control check, called the Capstone Event, to verify that a departing soldier is career-ready and has a viable transition plan.
Capstone certifications will be made by a soldier's commander, ACAP counselor, or both, 90 days before a soldier transitions.
The initiative will be piloted at Forts Carson and Sill and implemented servicewide Oct. 1.
A key element of the revitalized TAP was the implementation Nov. 20 of the Veterans Opportunity to Work Act, a legislative measure that requires the military services to provide a regimen of briefings, counseling and training to departing soldiers.
The law mandates transition services for all Regular Army soldiers who are separating after at least 90 days on active duty, and reservists who are demobilizing after six months or more of active service.
To meet the requirement, the Army has 700 counselors and support staff assigned to nearly 80 locations, to include all major installations and military communities in the U.S. and overseas.
A year ago, the ACAP community consisted of about 250 counselors and staff at 50 locations.
Despite the fierce budget battles now underway in Washington, it appears unlikely that TAP will be hit by severe spending cuts.
"This program is going to remain … and any changes we make to TAP won't be budget driven but by efficiencies and better service to soldiers," said Lt. Gen. Howard Bromberg, Army personnel chief.
Some recent initiatives indicate that the Army is exploring new ways to make it easier for separating soldiers to pursue their civilian employment goals.
As an example, Bromberg said the Army is conducting a pilot program with the Department of Labor in which nearly 400 soldiers from Fort Riley, Kan., and Fort Sill link up with DoL counselors and job centers several months before they leave the Army.
Normally, soldiers do not connect with DoL until after they leave the service.
Herd noted that DoL, in conjunction with the states, operates more than 3,000 job centers around the country.
Because of the large network of centers, most soldiers can connect with counselors and potential employers near or in the communities where they will live after they leave the Army.
"By putting soldiers in early contact with the job center, counselors and soldiers can fine-tune the job search before the soldier transitions," Herd said.
Another DoL initiative, called the Gold Card program, provides unemployed post-9/11 veterans with priority access to services at its job centers.
Eligible veterans can present the Gold Card at the job center to receive enhanced services, to include interviews and testing, group and individual counseling, job referrals and an assigned case manager for six months.
The Army also is conducting a pilot apprenticeship program at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., in conjunction with the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry of the United States and Canada.
Eighteen weeks of accelerated training in welding skills, and heating, ventilation and air conditioning is provided by UA under its Veterans in Piping program.
The union provides professional certification and jobs to soldiers who complete the training.
There are two parts to the pilot program, according to M. Kathleen Connolly, an education services officer at Lewis-McChord.
Fourteen soldiers are enrolled in an accelerated welding course at Lacey, Wash., which began Jan. 14 and will end May 24. Three additional welding classes are planned this year.
A mobile training trailer also is being installed at the Lewis-McChord education center for HVAC classes, according to Connolly.
More virtual traffic
Herd said officials recently have seen increased participation in ACAP's virtual capability.
"For example, our virtual ACAP center is getting busier and busier every day. We now deal with more than 500 soldiers per month, which is a major increase over just a few months ago, and I expect that will continue to grow."
The virtual ACAP center is operated from Human Resources Command at Fort Knox, Ky.
It provides soldiers with 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week access to counselors and services that, in the past, have been available only at installation ACAP centers.
"All the counselors at the virtual center have master's degrees in counseling, just like the counselors at our brick-and-mortar ACAP centers," Herd said.
At a virtual center, "you get the same advice, feedback and assistance from a professional that you would at a [regular ACAP center]," he said.
Within the past couple of months, ACAP officials have noted a sharp upturn in the number of commanders and other leaders around the Army requesting information about transition assistance.
Soldier feedback to ACAP indicates that the success of the program is dependent on soldiers getting the time and command support they need to make the most of transition services.
"As little as six months ago, there was very little leader involvement at most installations, units and locations," Herd said. "Now they are actively involved and asking information about the status of their soldiers, and how they can help them get a resume, and prepare for transition."
ACAP officials also have detected a positive trend in the reserve components.
"What we've found in the last month or so is that many of the Reserve units are beginning the transition process upon mobilization or prior to mobilization," Herd said.
"By doing this early, soldiers can lay groundwork for their transition when they are mobilized and be well prepared for job hunting when they demobilize," he said.