By Scott Prater | Mountaineer staff
FORT CARSON, Colo. — It’s a decision many people face when considering a career move — what to do next.
For service members who are close to exiting the military, this decision comes at a time when current duties often outweigh thoughts of future possibilities. It presents considerable risk to the decider. A decision made too hastily could put a person in the unenviable position of working a job they despise just for a paycheck.
Some service members also find that their military experience doesn’t hold much value in the private sector, so they may face a lengthy education or specialized training period prior to beginning their chosen line of work.
Other aspects of the decision come into play as well. Service members may choose to live in the local area or relocate to a more desirable area. Family considerations often affect outcomes as well, as do compensation and work-life balance.
The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates about 200,000 service members are expected to transition to civilian life annually in the next four years, so transition assistance can have a significant impact on employment surrounding military installations as well.
As mandated by congress in 2019, all active-duty military members, including National Guard and reservists, must now meet with an initial transition assistance program (TAP) counselor, attend pre-separation counseling and start their individual transition plans one year before either separating from the military or retiring.
Counselors at Fort Carson’s Soldier for Life-Transition Assistance Program said they prefer service members visit a TAP program a full 18-months prior to separating.
Time is a big factor.
“We want to see transitioning service members as far out as they can manage,” said Heather Holloman, SFL-TAP counselor. “Twenty-year retiree service members can start as early as 24 months out.”
Planning a career move could be as simple as doing a little research and learning about education requirements for specific careers. So why is it so important for service members to start the process so early?
“A person can finish their requirements in probably in a month,” Holloman said. “But we want service members to enter a TAP program early so they can find out about Career Skills Programs (specific skilled trade industry programs) and the varieties of careers they can choose from. Basically, we want them here so they can choose whatever they want from the vending machine.”
Fort Carson SFL-TAP hosts employer days and career fairs, where service members can talk directly with hiring managers from private sector and government employers.
The time factor is especially important for those who have no idea what they want to do following their military service.
“First, we ask them what their final date out is, and second what’s their highest level of education,” said Christina Hillard, Carson’s career skills program administrator. “Some CSP programs require an associate degree, and some don’t. Our Troops to Teachers CSP, for example, requires at least a bachelor’s degree.”
Fort Carson’s transition assistance program offer dozens of CSPs in a wide variety of industries to transitioning service members, from welding and truck driving to information technology and software engineering programs. And many of the CSPs require extended training courses to complete.
Depending on the individual, service members can complete these requirements while they are still on active duty.
“We will go through the different CSPs with service members so they can compare programs and then ask them to give us three that they are highly interested in,” Hillard said. “Then we show them the start date for those programs and see what fits within their time frame. We then give them the program manager’s contact information so they can talk to the program managers and do their comparisons. That helps them find out which program will have a job opportunity available to them, either locally or throughout the country.”
Of the many areas service members must consider, location is often paramount. Some opt to stay in the Colorado Springs area while some might prefer to move elsewhere.
“We talk to them about whether they are going to stay here or relocate, will it be for family or a job and we tell them to stay flexible through the many discussions we have in person with them,” said Emily Fair, Fort Carson SFL-TAP counselor.
Service members also need time to complete classes offered by transition assistance programs. One such class offered at Fort Carson is called MOS (military operational specialty) Crosswalk.
The MOS Crosswalk class acts as a crosswalk to civilian employment, Fair explained. Service members are in class with people who are planning to do any number of careers, from barber to psychotherapist, but counselors and instructors are really trying to relay how service members can access information about different careers and how they can find out about the certifications they’ll need in different states, for example.
“I think this is so important,” Fair said. “We can tell them about all these different jobs, but we are not setting them up for success if we’re not showing them how to find out if that is going to work for them. If someone has a family and a new baby, for instance, and their long-term goal is to be an engineer, which may require a master’s degree, that’s not going to work for their family if they need to work right now. Maybe they plan to work while they are going to school, but we want to make sure they have a sustainable plan for their future based on their needs.”
Hillard said counselors are especially attentive to service members in the lower ranks, from private to specialist, and it’s crucial for those service members to start their TAP program as early as possible. That’s one reason it’s important for military commanders to relay information about transitioning services to their NCOs, the service members front line supervisors.
“We conduct career fairs every month, but there are a lot of busy people,” Hillard said. “The military mindset doesn’t provide much time for service members to thing about what’s next, so we often see people who say they’ve never thought about how much there is to do to prepare for transition.”
Fort Carson’s SFL-TAP is open to service members of every branch and has programs available for military spouses and veterans. Call SFL-TAP at 719-526-1001 for more information about timelines and requirements, or visit its Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/FortCarsonSFLTAP.