AUSTIN, Texas — A Fort Hood-based pilot program that pays for soldiers to get civilian licenses and professional credentials could expand beyond Texas by the end of September, Sgt. Maj. of the Army Dan Dailey said recently during congressional testimony.
Speaking to a House Appropriations Committee subpanel, Dailey said the Credentialing Assistance Program, which is now only offered to roughly 36,000 soldiers of the regular Army, Army Reserve and Texas Army National Guard at Fort Hood, is expected to expand to all installations across the service in fiscal year 2020, which begins Oct. 1.
The test phase of the program launched at Fort Hood in September 2018. During the announcement of the program in the fall, officials said the central Texas base was chosen because of its education center, the availability of soldiers in a diverse realm of jobs, and partnerships within the community and nearby Central Texas College.
Dailey said the plans for expansion, which was always expected but not given a timeline, come after seeing positive results, even after just a few months in operation.
"I'm happy to report that that limited-user test is going well," Dailey said in February speaking to the House subcommittee on military construction, veterans affairs, and related agencies. He did not elaborate during the hearing on what made results positive, but much of the feedback stems from conversations among soldiers involved in a focus group that meets directly with the post's top command sergeant major. Data on the program is expected to be available following the end of the one-year test period.
The House hearing focused on quality of life at military installations and Dailey was joined in testimony by his counterparts at the other military branches. The discussion of the credentialing program followed a request to share information about it from Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, whose district includes Fort Hood.
"The U.S. Army has almost 150 military occupational skills, much of which directly translate to necessary high-skilled training jobs out in the civilian sector," Dailey said. "What (soldiers) lack is the civilian credentials in order to obtain those jobs."
Credentialing assistance is similar to tuition assistance, but opens the door to the professional certificates associated with many technical trades and jobs that require a license. It gives soldiers up to $4,000 a year toward earning one of the 28 different civilian licensing and certifications preselected as part of the pilot program. Certificates in the fields of fitness, food service, human resources, information technology, logistics, management, manufacturing, medical, trade and transportation were chosen because of job availability in Texas and the ability to complete them within the one-year test period.
Spc. Michael Picado, a network administrator with Fort Hood's 11th Signal Brigade, was an early user of the program, beginning his first course in November. His goal is to earn three civilian credentials each year through the end of his enlistment contract in 2021.
Right now, he's focused on earning credentials in his field of information technology and has already completed the IT Fundamentals certificate. In the coming years, Picado said he will branch out into credentials related to business and project management.
"I've noticed management-type certificates appeal to a lot of individuals," he said.
Data from Fort Hood shows that, too.
Since the program was started, Fort Hood has seen more than 800 soldiers visit the base education center to receive individualized counseling about the Credentialing Assistance Program, said Mike Engen, the post's education services officer. Because the program is new, Engen said his team has really focused on awareness. Soldiers have to know the program exists to take advantage, he said.
The most popular credential is the certified personal trainer certificate, Engen said. Other popular certifications include ones related to project management, human resources and the commercial driver's license.
Pamela Raymer, chief of Army Human Resources Command's Army Continuing Education System, said the rollout as incremental. The Army is developing a plan to expand the limited user test to other installations and states beyond Fort Hood and Texas, by the end of September. From there, she said the ultimate plan for Army-wide expansion is sometime in fiscal year 2020.
The program's expansion Army-wide also will expand the credentials offered from the 28 in the test program to all listed in the Army's Credential Opportunities On-Line program, or Army COOL. There are more than 1,650 credentials in the COOL database.
Dailey said the program not only prepares soldiers for civilian employment, but also builds a force with more knowledge, capability and readiness.
"Soldiers are excited for this to expand all around the Army," he said. "Of course, we've got to get all our facts together and make sure we fix all the problems before we do so."
Dailey said one concern is ensuring the Army is using credentialing partners that provide quality educational opportunities for a fair price.
"The Army values professional credentials. They improve military readiness by increasing the competence of our individual soldiers," Raymer said. It also helps "by retaining quality soldiers, enhancing their career progression, and providing the skills and qualifications that will make them competitive for post-service employment."
Two years ago, when Picado was choosing which military branch to join, the 30-year-old chose the Army because of these type of educational opportunities.
"All branches offer the same tuition assistance, but I chose the Army because I had the assumption that as a bigger branch, it would have more specialized programs," he said. "I'm glad I found the Credentialing Assistance Program over here. This is one of those programs that are the gems. It really has a lot of opportunity for me."
As Picado earns credentials, he said he can see it improving his work in the Army. As a network administrator, he ensures everyone who needs it has access to the internet.
"It supports my job in terms of me viewing it more as an apprenticeship," Picado said. "I'm learning the same stuff about my industry while I'm working. I absorb why I'm doing what I'm doing in my job."