Troy Johnson stands in the front of the big conference room in the Airman and Family Readiness Center and asks the 50 or so men and women seated in front of laptops who among them is interested in pursuing a career with the federal government.
About a dozen hands shoot up.
As the MacDill Air Force Base Transition Assistance Program Manager, it is Johnson’s job to help guide service members through the often-precarious shift from the regimented life in uniform to the civilian world, a cultural change that contributes to a higher rate of unemployment for post-9/11 veterans.
On this morning, Johnson is speaking at a session geared to helping those interested in a post-military job in the federal government tailor their resumes, questions and expectations.
One of the key takeaways is don’t assume.
“I talked to a guy two years ago,” Johnson tells the crowd. “He thought he had a job lined up, but he did not tailor his resume to the job. He assumed he could put anything in there and get the job. He did not qualify. He did not make the cert list (of those eligible to be hired). Make sure you are doing your resume properly.”
Sitting in one of the back rows, Jim Griffin, a Navy commander preparing to retire after 20 years, follows along closely. So too does Alan Rizzo, a sergeant major with the 20th Special Forces Group sitting on the other side of the room. They are facing a future out of uniform.
And they’re not alone.
With the end of the war in Iraq, the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan and budgetary constraints forcing the Pentagon to downsize, Johnson and his staff — four including himself — are extremely busy.
Between Oct. 1, 2012 and Sept. 30, 2013, more than 1,200 service members at MacDill began the process of leaving the military.
Two years ago, the unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans was more than 33 percent higher than the national average: 12.1 percent compared to 8.7 percent. Realizing that something needed to be done, Congress in 2011 passed the Veterans Opportunity to Work Act. Implemented last year, the VOW Act is a collaboration of the Departments of Defense, Labor, Education, the Veterans Administration, Small Business Administration, Office of Personnel Management and Department of Homeland Security. Among other things, it made the transition assistance program mandatory for anyone who served on active duty for 180 consecutive days and increased the number of programs and time spent on them.
“Our mission is to provide transition and career services to active duty members and their spouses,” says Johnson, who works for the 6th Force Support Squadron at MacDill. “We help them develop their knowledge, skills and abilities in order to assist them in making an informed career decision.”
Those retiring can start the process two years before leaving, says Johnson. Those who are separating before retirement can start a year ahead.
The first step is the service member contacting the TAP office and signing up for what’s called pre-separation counseling, says Johnson. That’s a three-hour overview of entitlements and benefits, he says. It also helps the servicemember develop an initial transition plan, where they begin to explore their options for finding careers that are both interesting and attainable.
The next step is the TAP GPS Workshop, which comes between six and nine months from leaving. It’s a mandatory five-day course implemented in January that provides information from the Pentagon, an overview of the TAP, resiliency training, an interest profile, a gap analysis and what’s called an MOC Crosswalk, where servicemembers get help translating their military job skills to the civilian world.
“This was the first time the TAP has been redesigned since 1991,” Johnson says. “Ideally, they will find their targeted career path, then do a gap analysis, looking at what their knowledge, skills and abilities are, find the salary ranges, what the labor market looks like and what degrees you need.”
The new program has been so popular at MacDill that instead of holding one 3.5-day session a month, Johnson’s office has held two of the five-day workshops twice a month “just to keep up with the demand
There are also three optional “tracks” — education, entrepreneurial and technical. The last step is called Capstone, “where we verify and validate that they have met their career readiness standard,” says Johnson.
Transitioning service members are also assisted by the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance and WorkNet Pinellas, which provide career counseling and employee outreach, says Ed Peachey, president and CEO of both organizations.
In addition to the programs mandated by the VOW Act, the MacDill TAP has added amenities like a LinkedIn workshop, an employer day, a public speaking workshop and a quarterly job fair.
A program that has been helpful — providing about a billion dollars in tax cuts to businesses hiring veterans — is set to expire at the end of the year. Johnson says transitioning troops would be reminded to tell potential employers about the tax cut because it could be a “difference-maker.”
One of the biggest challenges is getting servicemembers, who are subject to frequent moves, involved early enough, say MacDill TAP officials.
About 35 percent of those taking part in TAP waited until about 90 days before leaving the military, according to Efrain Costa, a TAP community readiness specialist.
“That doesn’t give them enough time to properly prepare for transition,” Johnson says. “They may need additional education or certification. They may not know what they want to do beyond the military. They may not have a resume, which can be a problem, especially for the combat (military occupational specialties) like special forces or infantry. Whatever they have done over 20 years in the military may not transfer over well.”
For nearly half his life, Griffin, 41, has worn a Navy uniform, giving him a level of stability unmatched in today’s civilian world. But on Jan. 3, that comes to an end with his retirement ceremony.
“My wife and I were just talking about that this weekend,” says Griffin. “There’s certainly been a great deal of stability that the military has provided me since I left college. I haven’t always known where I would be next year, but there was never any question that I would have a job.”
Griffin, an intelligence officer at U.S. Central Command, says he thinks he has lined up a job after he retires. But the TAP program “provides a security blanket.”
Though Griffin says he already had a decent plan in place, the TAP not only offered “refresher tips, nuances and things I hadn’t thought of before” for job interviews. And, he says that the initial phase taught him about VA benefits he didn’t realize he was eligible for.
Rizzo, 43, has been in the military for 26 years, leaving next April. An active-duty member of the Florida Army National Guard, Rizzo says that transitioning out of the military can be a difficult process.
During a six-year period when he served as a typical National Guard member with a full-time civilian job, Rizzo says he had a hard time adjusting to “the work ethic, or lack of a work ethic” those with no military experience exhibited.
For Rizzo, who started Praetorian Enterprises International, a small arms manufacturing company, the TAP “has been fantastic, as far as helping you try to develop things you don’t typically focus on being in the military, like resume writing and translating what you did into civilian terms.”
Like anything else, the TAP is not flawless.
Because instructors are dealing with those who have been in the military for 20-plus years as well as those for only a few, the information presented is often overly broad, Griffin says.
Whether the new TAP is making a significant difference remains to be seen, but unemployment statistics show that since being implemented at the beginning of 2012, the gap between civilians and post-9/11 veterans has narrowed — 9.9 percent for the post-9/11 veterans last year compared to 7.9 percent for civilians. The Government Accountability Office may shed light into what role TAP played.
The VOW Act required a GAO review of this effort. That report should be done in late winter of next year.
Either way, Johnson and his team are charging ahead.
On top of assisting all the transitioning service members, Johnson’s team has to perform administrative functions of three employees never rehired after the government shutdown. And they are also on the hook to help out with all the other functions performed by Airman and Family Readiness Center, such as dealing with financial emergencies, which trump everything.
“Are we overwhelmed?” Johnson says. “At times, yes, but we make it happen.”