A Key Step: Certifying Vets for Post-Military Jobs

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Veterans and their families at the White House's Tuesday announcement on veterans' hiring initiatives.

A lesson drilled into me throughout officer training went something like this: “If you ever decide to leave the Army, companies will snap you up in a second.  They’ll value your leadership and management skills.  It’ll set you ahead of your civilian peers.”

It was a bucket of cold water when I later realized—in the frantic throes of unemployment—that the people who told me that had never held a civilian job.

The fact is, for some in the military—like those in the infantry, armor, or artillery—there are simply no comparable civilian professions.

But even for those in technical, non-combat jobs, the skills gained in the military often aren’t enough. For example, according to the White House:

Although the majority of IT specialists in the military receive training equivalent to their civilian IT counterparts, few, on their own, seek additional off-duty industry training that can lead towards additional IT certifications above and beyond those required for their military occupation.

And that puts separating service members at an immediate disadvantage. Military leadership—and even IT expertise—only goes so far in the business world.

The reality is that most employers only care if you have the experience and qualifications to do what they do—right now.

If you haven’t had the time to obtain additional training or education to facilitate a successful transition, you’re basically out of luck.

This has been one of the systemic issues when it comes to fighting veteran unemployment.  Veterans, the thinking goes, have sacrificed, at a minimum, their time and ability to keep pace with their civilian peers.  In return, America has an obligation to do as much as possible to find them suitable employment.

Everyone, including President Obama, agrees on that. “We’re working to help our troops earn the credentials they need,” he said Tuesday, “for jobs and manufacturing and medicine and transportation.”

The problem has always been that hiring vets can work against the self-interest of many employers who need qualified employees. They want to hire veterans, but they don’t want to do so by putting their bottom line at risk.

That’s why Monday’s announcement of a new training and certification partnership is so important.  The new program isn’t simply aimed at lowering the persistently high unemployment rate among young, recently separated veterans. It goes further:

First Lady Michelle Obama unveiled the new Information Technology Training and Certification Partnership to put thousands of service members to work with industry-recognized IT certifications in hand before they leave the military.
Obama, who made the announcement at the White House Forum on Military Credentialing and Licensing at the White House, said a public-private partnership will offer the certification program.
“This new partnership will provide up to 161,000 service members with the chance to gain the certifications they need for 12 different high-demand, high-paying technology careers…from IT security analysts to computer programmers to quality assurance engineers,” she noted.
The program is expected to garner more than 1.8 million jobs by 2020, with salaries of more than $81,000, according to a White House fact sheet.

What makes this effort different is that it represents a new way of thinking about the issue.  In effect, it addresses the inherent structural employment problem which many veterans face immediately after they leave the service: That they simply don’t have the training or education necessary to get the jobs they want in the civilian sector.

But now:

Through the Military Credentialing and Licensing Task Force, the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps have worked with Cisco and a broad consortium of IT corporations and credentialing associations to expand the availability of certifications to military personnel with skills in high-demand areas such as computer programming, information assurance, network administration, and program design.
Through this partnership, service members will be able to partake in a gap analysis of their IT skills and then test for and earn civilian credentials above and beyond those required for their military occupation. Additionally, during the pilot phase of this program, service members will be able to participate in bridge training programs, free of cost, if the gap analysis indicates it is needed for the service member to obtain his or her civilian credential.

The purpose is to build on the service member’s existing military occupation to the extent that he or she will be qualified to land a comparable civilian job immediately upon leaving the military.

This is a positive and long overdue move—and it shows we’re finally moving beyond the shallow, window dressing type fixes attempted in the past.

Moving forward, we still must determine whether there’s anything to be done prior to separation for those serving in combat arms—at least anything that can be done without sacrificing readiness.

I remain skeptical on that front.

But with the fresh thinking extant in this IT certification partnership, we seem to have turned a corner—at least in how we think about the relationship between military service and our responsibility to weave post-military preparation into it.

This is one segment of the military that will now be far better prepared to enter the civilian work force.

And that’s certainly a step in the right direction.

Brandon Friedman is a vice president at Fleishman-Hillard in Washington, D.C. and the author of The War I Always Wanted. From 2009 to 2012, he worked at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Follow him on Twitter at @BFriedmanDC.