Crossing the finish line--the need for civilian transition leadership

Chief Master Sgt. Alexander Hall is the superintendent for the 50th Network Operations Group at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Chief Master Sgt. Alexander Hall is the superintendent for the 50th Network Operations Group at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado. (U.S. Air Force photo)

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Leadership.  The military does it like no other.  From the moment a civilian raises their right hand and makes that solemn oath, they're led by trainers, supervisors, commissioned and noncommissioned officers throughout their career.  Whether it's four years or 24 years, they're guided every step by leaders.  That is of course, until the end is in sight.  Right at the cusp of what is arguably the biggest life decision many of us will make since we first joined the service, we're left alone to figure it out for ourselves.  Nobody leads us through the transition back to civilian life.  So I must ask the leaders amongst us:  Why don't we lead our Airmen across the finish line?

An estimated 1 million men and women are expected to leave the military and transition to the civilian workforce in the next four years.  Without effective in-service employment counseling, many of these former military members could join the ranks of nearly 573,000 unemployed veterans (Bureau of Labor Statistics, March 2015).

Until recently, if you separated short of 20 years of service, "the finish line" meant you got barely more than a DD-214 and transportation to your home of record.  Supervisors invested little, if any, time into helping their Airmen prepare for life after military service.  So why don't we help our Airmen become civilians again?  Is it a feeling that they have an unfulfilled commitment or that they're quitting on us?  Or is it because we're simply unaware of what programs and assistance are available?  Does ops tempo force us to off-load the responsibility for transition guidance to Airman and Family Readiness Center programs instead of attending to our Airmen's needs ourselves?

Now is the time to change the way we talk about leaving active duty.  If you haven't taken a look around lately, the transition horizon has changed.  In 2011, Congress passed the "Veterans Opportunity to Work Act".  The VOW Act requires separating service members attend the Transition Assistance Program, which prepares them for the realities of today's job market.  Another change resulting from the VOW Act drove the Air Force to launch the Air Force-Credentialing Opportunities On-Line program in 2014.  AF-COOL offers industry-recognized credentials to support an Airman's professional growth, while also providing portable proof of knowledge, skills and abilities matched to jobs in the civilian sector.  Learn more about AF-COOL at: https://afvec.langley.af.mil/afvec/Public/COOL/Default.aspx.

However, it's not enough that Congress compels us to place priority on military transition.  As leaders, we must promote the value veterans bring to corporate America.  Traditionally, we think most companies hire veterans as a way to say thanks for their service or show public support.  We quickly acknowledge veterans are dependable, hardworking and can take orders and finish assignments.  Yet, the real value of a veteran is more than that:  veterans know how to make tough choices in ambiguous situations, providing results even when not all the needed information is available.  Veterans have experience working with people of various cultures and backgrounds; integrating diversity to build teams.  Veterans know what it means to work toward a higher purpose and will do what is necessary to meet objectives.  Veterans don't get discouraged by changes in market conditions, buying behaviors or anything else; providing calm through the chaos of business.  And most importantly, veterans understand what it means to be accountable; they'll run a program, project or business as if it's their own.  While these traits are commonplace in the military, they're gold to future civilian employers.

Leaders must also appreciate how allowing our Airmen to prepare for life in the civilian sector complements military performance.  Here's what our feedback to Airmen should include:  consider what you want to do post-service and choose a career path that will help get you the needed experience, which may include retraining if your current career doesn't align with your goals.  Furthermore, pursue your education -- it's the reason many of us chose military service in the first place.  College degrees, professional certifications and military leadership courses help build a solid résumé.  Another piece of advice we can give is to learn to communicate -- public speaking requires experience.  Additionally, always find a mentor.  Just as a military mentor helps us find the right schools, jobs or duty stations, having a civilian mentor or joining a professional organization from your career field can help you keep abreast of trends outside the military.  Finally, volunteer -- it can diversify your experience, especially if you're taking a drastic turn with your post-service occupational choice.  Tell your Airmen that following the "whole-person" concept doesn't just make them better military professionals, it can also make a difference in life after service.

Leaders, our focus has traditionally been on robust retention counselling:  the Air Force benefits fact sheet, Informed Decision briefs for first- and second-term Airmen, a dedicated full-time Career Assistance Advisor and the self-reflection provided by the Airman Comprehensive Assessment.  I offer that we need to add transition counselling to our toolkit: talk about financial preparedness, veteran training, employment opportunities, post military health care and Veterans Affairs benefits.  Discussing retention and transition with your Airmen are not exclusive actions; they're complementary parts of a complete sight picture and ensure we're ready to lead them across the finish line.