For decades the Army has offered tuition assistance to soldiers who want to earn degrees, and now leadership is looking into how to translate that program to cover civilian credential and certification training for soldiers to study skills both in and out of their specialties.

A survey went out to 100,000 soldiers back in November, asking whether they would be interested in earning civilian credentials and whether they might consider that option over tuition assistance if they could, officials told Army Times in a Jan. 11 interview.

"What we're finding is, overwhelmingly, of course yes," Sergeant Major of the Army Dan Dailey said.

More than 3,000 soldiers responded within the first three weeks the survey went out, according to Joe Parson, the Army's credentialing officer.

Participants have until Jan. 23 to give their feedback.

The survey is the first step the Army is taking to create a sort of credentialing assistance program that would allow the Army to invest in soldiers while potentially saving money on college tuition while they're in the service. The program also could save money down the road, because soldiers with professional civilian credentials hopefully will be more marketable to employers and won't be drawing unemployment checks from the Army once they separate.

The move will undo an oversight, officials said, that had the Army training soldiers in myriad job skills without giving them the piece of paper that would let them translate that experience into a civilian job.

"The value proposition wasn't very high for them to enter the marketplace because we didn't do a very good job translating the training, education and experience they got in the service," Parson said. "We had a culture of, everything was disposable -- that you had to leave the service and it was strictly on you to translate that."

That has been particularly true for combat arms soldiers, who historically have had a harder time transitioning their service to a civilian job. Eventually, Dailey said, the hope is that soldiers will be able to earn credentials no matter what their military occupational specialty, the way they can study anything they want through tuition assistance.

Investing in soldiers

The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act opened the door for the Army to be able to pay for soldiers to get professional credentials that directly correlate to their jobs.

That can mean information technology certifications for information technology specialists, commercial driver's licenses for motor transport operators or personal training licenses for every noncommissioned officer leading your morning PT.

An IT certification costs less than $4,000, Parson said, with starting salaries pegged between $40,000 and $100,000 per year depending on the credential.

But officials want to expand that beyond MOS constraints, so that even your average 11B can get certified as an electrician and get a job as soon as he's out of the Army, or possibly use it while he's still in.

Dailey told the story of a reserve component infantryman he led during an Iraq deployment who helped set up an electrical grid because that was his day job.

"Another time, I had to get a water treatment facility going in Sadr City. Because when people don’t have water, they get very angry, and when they get very angry they’re shooting at you," he said. "It just so happens I had a reserve soldier who worked at a water treatment facility."

It might also keep that enlisted infantryman in longer, if reenlistment bonuses weren't enough of a motivator.

"The misperception is that if you give people credentials, they’ll leave. That’s absolutely not true," Dailey said. "Monetary incentive is not the primary reason people stay with organizations. It’s obviously not the one in the Army. We don’t give a whole lot of monetary incentive."

Just investing in soldiers and allowing them to cultivate their own skills and knowledge could keep them loyal to the Army, he added, which is the same philosophy behind TA.

There are two ways to flesh out this plan: One is an internally funded program through the Army to do MOS-related credentials, and then there is a broad-reaching option that will require approval from the office of the secretary of defense and Congress.

Dailey and his partners are working both angles right now, to see whether they have to start with MOS-only training or if they can get it all done with one program. Once the survey closes, there will be a cost-benefit analysis, to see how much money it would cost to credential soldiers, and how much might be saved if they decide to go for a certificate over a degree.

Like TA, there would have to be limits on dollars and number of hours spent on training.

"We’re authorized to pay for all the training, materials, fees, certifications and recertifications," Parson said, but they will have to set parameters.

For instance, it's unlikely that the Army will pay for the same certification through multiple outlets, or that they'll cover yearly or periodic recertification fees indefinitely.

With tuition assistance, for example, the cap is 16 credit hours or $4,500 a year.

In the meantime, Dailey encourages soldiers to look into credentialing programs through their local community colleges, which are eligible for TA money. The only hitch is that the Army won't pay for certification tests just yet.

Realistically, he said, they're looking at a year before they could have a credentialing program up and running.

Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.

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