Why are transition assistance programs not as effective as they should be? The answers are out there, but nobody is asking the questions.

When Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines leave the military service they are generally young, fit, and eager to get to work in the civilian world.  Many go to school to obtain an education, but many more jump headlong into the job market.  Unfortunately, they are not as prepared as they could be to compete in the cutthroat employment marketplace.  It is not because the government is not trying to help transitioning military folks learn the skills they need to get a job, because there are a multitude of programs out there to help with transition.  Unfortunately, those programs are not nearly as effective as they could and should be.

The Department of Defense, the Veterans Administration, and Department of Labor have spent many millions of dollars (over $50 Million in 2012 alone) on various programs designed to help veterans make the transition from military service to the civilian world.  These agencies are charged with conducting classes, seminars, and counseling that is designed to help those who are hanging up their uniforms with the challenging and often confusing process of becoming a civilian again.

Despite the efforts of these agencies, there is a serious problem with unemployment for recently discharged veterans.  The population of younger veterans who are recently discharged is having the toughest time, with those in the 20 – 24 year old age bracket hitting an unemployment rate of 35% in March of this year according to a Syracuse University study that was released last month (available here: March 2013 Employment Situation of Veterans) .  That stunning number is well over double the rate for the same population of non-veterans.

That means that a lot of our veterans are out of work, and as a result the DOD is paying a lot of money out in the form of unemployment benefits to those who can’t find a job.  It is a shocking amount of money.  I mean really shocking!

How shocking?  Try nearly $1 Billion dollars a year (the actual number was $928 million for 2012 and is on track to increase in 2013).  Almost one billion dollars.  For unemployment benefits.  For veterans who cannot find a job.  And it comes out of the DOD’s annual budget, and every dollar that is spent on unemployment benefits for a veteran is a dollar that is not spent on the people still serving or the equipment that they use to keep our nation safe.

Paying unemployment insurance for separated military personnel is not new for the Department of Defense.  In fact, the DOD has been paying millions of dollars in unemployment benefits for a long time, but the billion dollar pricetag is unprecedented. In 2003, the military paid about $300 million on such benefits, and a decade later that cost has over tripled.

There are a lot of reasons for the increase, with the most obvious being the increase in the number of people leaving the military and having a rough time finding a job in the tough economic conditions that exist today.

That is only part of the story, however.  The Obama administration, to their credit, has increased funding and awareness for the plight of jobless veterans.  Unfortunately, those efforts are not paying the dividends that they should be.  With such a high level of emphasis and funding for transition training and education, you would think that the unemployment rate for veterans would be at or below the non-veteran level.  Unfortunately, it is not.

That is where the data from the Orders to Nowhere Military Transition Survey becomes very interesting.

As I continue to research the subject of military transition, I have been analyzing the data from the survey and a few data points really jump out.  The first data point is how little feedback about the transition process is actually gathered by the organizations that are actually doing the transition training.

Every branch of the military uses After Action Reviews (AARs) to gather feedback from events and learn from the lessons that the AAR provides.  Pilots debrief every mission in order to become better aviators and infantrymen get together and discuss the lessons that they learned from their combat or training engagements.  These debriefs and lessons learned sharing sessions are part of every service and every career field.  Capturing lessons and learning from experience is a crucial part of what makes our military unbeatable.

Unfortunately, the AAR process does not seem to apply to transitioning or recently transitioned veterans.  Despite the culture of learning from experience, the vast pool of potential data sources — recently transitioned veterans — is virtually untapped.

The data shows that, of respondents who left the service between 2003 and 2013, less than one in five had been contacted by the Department of Defense or their branch of service about transition.  Of those one in five who had been contacted, less than half (0r just under 10% of all respondents) were asked to participate in an AAR of the transition process.

In other words, fewer than one in ten recently discharged veterans have been asked to help make the transition process better by providing feedback on their experience.

That, to me, is an incredibly disappointing statistic.  It is not particularly surprising, however.  Nobody officially asked me anything about my transition, and in my many conversations with veterans I have found that nobody asked them either.

Millions and millions of dollars are being spent every year on the military transition process, yet unemployment rates for veterans continues to exceed their civilian counterparts.  Nearly a billion dollars is being spent by the DOD on unemployment benefits for those unemployed veterans.  You would think that somebody would connect the dots between the efficacy of the military transition programs and their effect on the unemployment rate, but sadly the most readily available resource of feedback is largely being ignored.  Nobody is asking the vast majority of people who have gone through those transition programs and entered the civilian workforce about their experiences and how the transition programs could be improved.

The answers are out there.  Too bad nobody is asking the right people the questions.

In yet another shameless plug- I can never get enough data in the Orders to Nowhere Military Transition Survey.  So if you have transitioned from the US military (it doesn’t matter when), please take the survey!  If you have take it, I thank you.  Please ask others to take it too!