Those who had banked on a lifetime Army career suddenly found their plans eclipsed as they were forced to look for employment in one of the toughest job markets in years.
In 1992, more than 170,000 people left the Army. As many as one-third of the Desert Stormera Army personnel will be affected by forced reductions before the downsizing is complete. The planned reductions through 1997 will decrease the Army to a size of about 495,000 soldiers, reduced from 710,000 at the end of 1991. To meet this challenge, the Army has developed the most advanced and comprehensive outplacement program to date within the U.S. military. Its efforts have included establishing 55 job-assistance centers worldwide, a qualified pool of 286 job counselors and a computer data base linked to more than 11,000 U.S. national employers. And as businesses face the reality of a widening skills gap in the existing U.S. work force, one immediate and cost-effective option is for human resources personnel to seek Army alumni and the the experiences they bring to the workplace.
As the size of the "peace reduction" became apparent in the early 1990s, the Army realized that it needed a central organization to handle the massive task it faced. Through the U.S. Total Army Personnel Command (PERSCOM), which handles the Army's HR functions, the Army leadership created the Army Career and Alumni Program (ACAP). ACAP initially was organized as a pilot program in the fall of 1990 with two component parts: a government-employee-operated Transition Assistance Office (TAO) that coordinates onpost services related to the transition and a contractor-operated Job Assistance Center (JAC).
The TAO serves as the initial point of contact for those leaving the military. Ideally, the first counseling session is scheduled 180 days prior to departure and culminates in the development of an Individual Transition Plan (ITP). Typically, the ITP schedules the applicant for legal and financial counseling, educational benefits and testing assistance and reserve recruiting consultation. The career part of the program includes a healthy dose of counseling to ensure that eligible careerists are given every opportunity to re-enlist.
The Job Assistance Center provides a full range of outplacement counseling services similar to those found in private industry. Experienced counselors with master's degrees operate the JAC and provide training and one-on-one counseling to assist individuals in developing job-search strategies. The goal is to maximize the skills acquired in the military and use them to launch a second career.
In 1993, the ACAP served more than 247,000 new and repeat clients at 62 ACAP sites on military posts worldwide.
Pauline Botelho, director of the Army's ACAP program, explains: "Before ACAP, we had an orchestra of service providers: education, community and family support, civilian personnel offices, Veterans Affairs, state employment agencies, health-care providers, chaplains, the Judge Advocate General (legal counsel) and more. Our problem was that although each of these musicians played fine music, it couldn't always be heard or appreciated. There was no conductor. ACAP helps orchestrate it all."
JACs serve as the ACAP's right hand.
Serving more than 8,000 clients per month at 55 of the 62 ACAP sites, the program demonstrates that "the Army takes care of its own," says Brigadier General Patricia Hickerson, the adjutant general of the Army.
The outplacement program, which is run by Resource Consultants, Inc. (RCI) of Vienna, Virginia, provides seminars, workshops and individual training to translate military training into marketable skills for the private sector. It does that by motivating and equipping soldiers, family members and Army civilian employees with the necessary job-search tools. Also provided in the services are assistance with resumes and cover letters and access to the Army Employer and Alumni Network—the computerized data base of more than 11,000 employers who are committed to placing former Army personnel. Each JAC is equipped with the staff and resources to provide a comprehensive package of job assistance, including a resource center and library where individuals can focus on career planning.
Given the nature of today's working world, "JAC clients, both military and civilian, may well face a lifetime of career and job transitions that go beyond the drawdown," says Thomas Hale, RCI's program director for JAC. Accordingly, the JAC philosophy is built on the principle of empowerment. "Clients are given the information, skills and guidance necessary to succeed in today's job market. They're encouraged to assume responsibility for this and all future job searches."
RCI also responded to the Army requirement for technology in the outplacement process by creating a customized system for use in the pilot phase of the project. The pilot phase ran at seven ACAP sites for approximately a year until the full program of 55 centers was established in late 1991. The first pilot center was operating two months after RCI was awarded the contract. Because of the large scale of the post-Desert Storm downsizing, the full program was set up and staffed on a very fast track. Within 90 days of the contract award, the additional JACs were established around the world. That meant physically setting up the centers; purchasing and shipping furniture; purchasing, shipping and installing the computers and networks; and recruiting and hiring qualified outplacement counselors who could be trained to handle the special challenges inherent in the clients' range of skills and experience. Today, the 286 JAC contracted field staff are placed throughout the continental United States, Hawaii, Alaska, Europe, Central America and the Far East.
JAC programs include individualized plans that are developed to meet each client's skills, financial needs and other personal considerations.
Clients also can attend a three-day Department of Labor-operated Transition Assistance Program (TAP) workshop or either a three-hour seminar or a six-hour workshop operated by JAC staff. Both workshops use similar materials and strategies. Experienced counselors review the clients' worksheets and help them define their job objectives as well as prepare resumes and cover letters for networking and interviews. Individual counseling prepares clients for use of JAC resources, which include a job-assistance library and information bulletin board, automated resume and cover-letter writer, word processor, and automated Army Employer Alumni Network (AEAN) data base.
According to a preliminary survey conducted by ACAP among former clients, full outplacement services have aided employment success and salaries better than partial service. Those who received full services and were in the job market were more likely to be employed full time than those receiving only group training. There also was a significant difference in annual salary ($2,457) between employees who received full services and those who received only group training.
The military partners with the private sector.
The Army and employers across the United States have forged a unique, precedent-setting partnership in the JAC program. For years, many companies from the private sector approached the Army for employee candidates because they viewed soldiers as physically fit, highly skilled, disciplined, reliable and flexible in a variety of situations. They also are viewed as possessing strong leadership and management skills. But until ACAP, there was no formal Army-business connection, no systematic communication mechanism and no job-counseling program. Today, the network is based on the concept of mutual benefits: Army alumni benefit because employers are receptive to them; employers benefit from access to a pool of skilled workers. The data base contains names of national and local employers that have been recruited into the JAC system.
The Army's covenant with the business community is reflected in the large number of employers who are committed to considering veterans. In addition to the national employers, there are more than 4,000 local employers representing a cross section of occupations—from truck driving to urban planning. Many of the Army's business contacts have been established through job fairs, professional conferences and employer advertisements in military publications. About 300 to 400 businesses per month sign on with the employer-alumni network, and each employer is cross-referenced by occupation and geographic location. This powerful tool allows clients to identify quickly the most likely targets to pursue.
Other job-bank networks exist, but JAC's uniqueness is its state-of-the-art computer-counseling interface, says Hale. In the program there is an interconnection between services: The computer works best with counselors; counselors work best with the computer. Hale compares using the network to going to the bank: You work with a bank teller—the counselor—to get your money out of the bank—the data base. The computer-counselor interface goes beyond workshops into one-on-one counseling to focus on realistic objectives. The custom-designed, automated system integrates client services, scheduling, counseling support and administration. Clients even have access to an automated resume writer designed specifically for Army personnel, Army civilians and family members. It produces laser-quality resumes. Cover-letter software is available that complements the resume software and interacts with the AEAN data base.
This user-friendly program draws on exercises from seminars and workshops, using the same key words and answers. Participants can use those worksheets while working on the computer, filling in fields that will generate the resumes and cover letters. On the AEAN, a client can produce a cover letter addressed to any listed employer by pushing one button.
In 1993, nearly 114,000 active, civilian and family members were registered as first-time clients through JAC centers. Botelho cited a staff sergeant from an ACAP site in the Midwest who was hired by the state of Wisconsin Department of Highways as a budget analyst. He credited the JAC staff assistance, especially the interview coaching, for his success in landing the job. Said another client from St. Louis: "I feel more relaxed and have a better sense of direction. Now I know there is a systematic approach to employment." Hale adds to the praises, noting that enlisted alumni are starting in the civilian job market two to three levels above their high-school classmates. "That's a real jumpstart in their new careers," he says.
In order to further the success of the program, the Army encourages the private sector to visit JAC sites, participate in job fairs, conduct on-site training in mock interviews, critique resumes, respond to the AEAN newsletter and post immediate job openings. Moreover, even though the military is downsizing, there still is a need for specialized recruits. Since human resources professionals interview hundreds of job applicants who may be unqualified for vacant positions due to a lack of skills, they can suggest military service as one option for further training.
The program sets up a triple-win situation.
Everyone benefits: Individuals who are leaving the service are on the road toward obtaining a job; U.S. taxpayers ultimately will pay less in unemployment funds; and the Army is actually "sending people away happy."
In 1992, the Department of Defense Conversion Commission had published the following recommendation: "Successful transition-assistance programs should be made permanent. Even though the number of people leaving active duty each year is expected to decline through the 1990s, current projections indicate that about 230,000 military personnel will continue to be separated annually even after the forced reductions are completed. These individuals, too, will need employment assistance. The Department of Defense has an obligation to help its departing members return to the civilian work force on separation, regardless of whether the armed forces are growing or shrinking."
(Those interested in joining ACAP may call PERSCOM at 1-800-445-2049, extension 11 or 1-703-893-2403. Send fax requests to 1-703-356-7183.)
Personnel Journal, May 1994, Vol.73, No. 5, pp. 115-118.