Meeting the needs of transitioning service members – and their spouses – is a big job, and it generally starts with the Department of Defense Transition Assistance Program (TAP).

Consistently evaluating and improving TAP – especially to meet the needs of minorities, women and younger, enlisted service members – is critical to improving post-service outcomes, according to a series of policy recommendations issued in January by the George W. Bush Institute.

“Outcomes for those groups aren’t as good as we’d like them to be,” said Col. Matthew F. Amidon, former director of veterans and military families at the institute.

In a series of articles, Military Times is examining each of the Institute’s four recommendations:

· The administration should refine a national veterans strategy.

· The DoD should leverage veteran and military family communities to sustain an all-volunteer force.

· The DoD should invest further in the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) for the 21st century.

· The Department of Veterans Affairs and the Social Security Administration should focus on advancing data collaboration.

Currently, TAP offers a common level of support to about 200,000 service members a year at 200 locations around the world, said Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman, a Department of Defense spokesperson. She said the program tailors support to each service member’s individual transition plan and it is successful and continuously evolving.

“Commanders fully support TAP and are committed to ensuring a successful military-to-civilian transition for their Service members,” Schwegman said. “DoD’s historic level of service and support to service members is better and more comprehensive than at any point in our nation’s history.”

Research has shown that veterans are undervalued – and often underpaid – in the civilian workforce – despite their training, ability to work with and for a team and strong work ethic, it can be a struggle for transitioning service members and spouses to find meaningful, lucrative employment. The Veterans Metrics Initiative from Penn State has indicated that more than 60 percent of veterans are underemployed or unemployed – which in the current job market, is a large untapped pool of talented and driven individuals.

Amidon said TAP does a great job, but it isn’t a monolith. Some bases and stations do a better job than others and those with robust relationships with civilian employers and those that support sub-populations like younger, enlisted service members, women and communities of color tend to have better success rates.

“We don’t throw darts at TAP,” he said. “They’ve made great strides.”

And Ross Dickman, COO for Hire Heroes USA, a nonprofit that has helped service members and spouses transition to the civilian workforce since 2005, said his organization has collected data showing a more personalized approach increases positive outcomes.

His organization surveys the veterans and spouses they serve for 36 months after job placement, asking questions about how well they are doing at their jobs and in their communities. That information is used to keep improving their program – filling in gaps and bridging barriers.

“We have some really unique insights,” Dickman said. “Any modification to TAP needs to address some of the gaps and barriers that are in transition assistance outcomes. Generally, we’d love to see a continued emphasis on understanding the career support based on need, client demographics and more. There are different needs based on location, the type of experience while in the military, gender, race – it all factors in and TAP can’t always fit with all of these unique needs.”

Any further investment in TAP, Dickman and Amidon said, needs to address these known gaps and work to address a more personalized approach. Dickman said Hire Heroes USA’s success is due to its one-on-one approach, with each client receiving personalized service to help them find employment that that fits their skills – and helps the service member meet their financial needs and goals as well.

Schwegman said TAP is currently evaluating and steering modifications to collaborate with its current six agency partners (the Departments of Veterans Affairs, Labor, Education, Homeland Security, Small Business Administration, and the Office of Personnel Management). This collaboration has led to programs for women; wounded, ill or injured service members and their caregivers and a host of other targeted programs.

And in the future, the DoD will continue to focus on the 13 congressionally mandated demographic and transition factors: Rank, term of service, gender, component status (i.e. active duty, Guard or Reserve), disability, character of discharge, health, military occupation specialty, intentions after transition, education, prior employment, post-transition employment/education enrollment/vocational enrollment, and other Departmental factors deemed appropriate.

“DoD TAP is successful because it is postured to continuously evolve to meet the demands of the transitioning service members,” she said.

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