Advocates Call for Overhaul of Program to Help Military Personnel Move into Civilian Jobs

Key points about employers during a transition assistance class
A computer displays some key points about employers during a transition assistance class, Feb. 14, 2017, at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Delia Marchick)

For decades, service members have trudged into offices for presentations on potential careers after they separate from the military as part of the Transition Assistance Program, or TAP. It's a rite of passage that was meant to help combat what have been stubbornly high unemployment rates for veterans.

But many veterans and their advocates are frustrated with the program, viewing it as insufficient to help transitioning troops and inadequately supported by commanders who often see it as a box-checking exercise and fail to allocate enough time for departing service members to learn much. Among their top complaints: TAP provides too much information in too little time and often pushes troops to pursue outside resources.

"It's the job of the military to help you support the military. It's not to get you out and put you into a civilian career and help you figure out who you want to be when you take that uniform off," said Mike Greenwood, an Army veteran who now runs veterans services at the COMMIT Foundation. "Their commitment to you ends when you walk out the door."

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Greenwood sat through TAP classes himself in late 2006 and early 2007 but felt that instructors were pushing him toward trade jobs when he wanted to be a banker.

Given the stark differences between military and civilian life and workforces, TAP is supposed to provide necessary resources for service members -- many of whom signed up in their teens and may have never needed to look for a full-time job or career -- as they navigate leaving the military.

Recent studies have indicated that a higher percentage of the 250,000 active service members who transition out of the military each year are now struggling than in previous decades.

A 2022 study from the National Library of Medicine found that more than 60% of veterans in the post-9/11 era have reported difficulty in moving on to civilian life, whereas veterans of earlier eras were at roughly 25%.

Most troops do not start TAP at least a year prior to their departure, even though it is required by law as a means of making sure enough time is dedicated to planning for transition.

A 2023 report by the Government Accountability Office found that, among those who left the military from early April 2021 through late March 2023, more than 70% did not start TAP on time, and more than one-third began TAP less than six months before leaving -- offering little time to take advantage of the program.

Army veteran Princess Gibbs, who served from 2003 up until June this year, began TAP in late summer 2022. She had to start TAP about a month later than she originally planned due to existing responsibilities within her unit.

When Gibbs was finally able to start the program, she found the information provided to be both "beneficial" and overwhelming.

"By the time your unit gives you that space and opportunity, it's just so much all at one time," Gibbs said. "For some people, it just becomes a check on the box."

Today, Gibbs owns and operates "Better You, Better Us," an online life-coaching business she founded in 2020. She wanted to start the company a few years prior to departing the military due to "transitional problems" she had heard about.

TAP, which was started in 1991, offers mandatory courses for transitioning service members that include "standardized learning objectives," according to the Defense Department website. However, for each person leaving the military, the program typically does not follow a specific schedule.

TAP has expanded since its inception, with the program providing pre-separation counseling for service members starting in 2011. The veteran unemployment rate today is 2.7%, a nearly 5 percentage point decrease since the 2011 TAP overhaul, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, though the overall national unemployment rate has also dipped substantially in that period as well.

But Greenwood said information offered during TAP courses and counseling can still be overwhelming for service members.

"Starting TAP in the last year is really just taking a Thanksgiving dinner plate, throwing everything on the plate and not even knowing if you like everything," he said.

According to a statement from the Defense Human Resources Activity to, the Defense Department is working to improve the timeliness of initial transition counseling. The DoD is one of several government organizations -- including the Departments of Labor, Homeland Security, Education and Veterans Affairs, among other agencies -- that work to provide TAP.

The statement said that the Defense Department and other agencies involved with TAP have "developed Corrective Action Plans" to increase transitioning counsel guidance. Additionally, the TAP Interagency Executive Council has started multiple reviews to identify best practices and areas in need of support for the program.

Similar to Greenwood, Army veteran Jacob Pachter -- who served from 2017 through 2022 -- also wanted to enter a non-vocational field following his service: consulting. But Pachter said he found TAP courses to be "largely unhelpful" and pursued resources outside of the program instead.

Through the Army's Career Skills Program -- an offshoot of the Defense Department's SkillBridge program -- Pachter was hired as an intern at the consulting firm Deloitte, where he works full time today.

Pachter called CSP the "single best program" for his military transition but added he was able to find it only through personal research.

"I don't think the average soldier would probably be aware of a lot of these programs or know how to interact with them," he said.

Better advertising and expanding programs like DoD SkillBridge could help transitioning service members gain experience in fields they are interested in pursuing post-military careers in, Pachter added.

However, the GAO's report noted that service members who start TAP later are typically unable to take advantage of the DoD SkillBridge Program, whose opportunities take place during the final six months of a service member's time in the military.

Employment rates also vary for recently transitioned service members, depending on when they completed their transition programs.

A Department of Labor study citing data from 2014 to 2021 determined that service members who completed TAP or its predecessor program at least six months before leaving the military were more likely to be employed after departing than those who completed it closer to their departure date.

New legislation sponsored by Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate is trying to address some of the problems cited by veterans -- but with a stalled Congress and ongoing funding battle between both parties, it seems unlikely it will be passed any time soon.

The TAP Promotion Act, which has different versions in the House and Senate, would allow accredited representatives from veterans service organizations, or VSOs, to participate in TAP classes and help transitioning service members file Benefits Delivery at Discharge claims, which includes disability compensation benefits.

While both versions of the legislation are almost identical in content, the House bill prioritizes the ability of chartered VSOs to interact with service members, whereas the Senate version gives equal priority to all accredited VSOs, including those at the state and county levels.

"The whole idea is to make the transition from active-duty status to veteran status as smooth and seamless as possible and as advantageous for the soon-to-be veteran," Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said in an interview with about the TAP Promotion Act. King is one of four senators -- including Republicans and Democrats -- who introduced the bill in September.

Sponsors of the Senate version of the TAP Promotion Act aim to have the bill go through the committee process early next year prior to a vote on the floor, a veterans policy staffer familiar with the legislation said.

King added, however, that while he hopes the legislation can pass on its own, it may need to be attached to a "larger vehicle" like the National Defense Authorization Act for 2025.

Greenwood believes that TAP should further collaborate with vetted nonprofit VSOs like the COMMIT Foundation where he works to fill gaps it is unable to meet for service members between 12 to 24 months before their departures. But he also said the legislation could represent a potential "great change."

"The goal is to take care of [service members]. The goal is not just to be there," he said of VSOs. "The act of saying, 'Hey, we're allowing people in.' That's huge."

-- Pavan Acharya is an undergraduate student at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism covering national security in Washington. Pavan has interned at Midstory, a Midwestern-based media hub, and was a managing editor at The Daily Northwestern.

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