In July 1993, Air Force Sgt. Anita Smith left McChord AFB,
Wash., with a medical discharge and a few butterflies in her stomach. Friends warned
that her training and experience would count for little in civilian life,
applying for a government job would be futile, and she would have to leave the
Northwest to find any real opportunities.
Ms. Smith ignored the warnings. She stayed in the Puget
Sound area, blended her military training with a master's degree, and landed a
job with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. She has since
moved to another government agency—the Washington State Human Rights
Commission—and plans to pursue another graduate degree from a university in the
The ex-USAF Sergeant credits her success to her own
long-range planning and to the Air Force's Transition Assistance Program
(TAP), a broad-gauged effort developed during the drawdown to help exiting servicemen
and -women make the switch from military to civilian employment. Ms. Smith
recalled that the system "helped tremendously," teaching her vital
résumé-writing skills and interviewing techniques, as well as how to describe
military experience in civilian terms. "That helped me get the job with
HUD," she said. "My experience there and my master's led to the job
with the state."
Ms. Smith's discharge stemmed from a back injury—not the
kind of separation the transition program was created to address. TAP was
designed to help the tens of thousands of active-duty members being moved out
during USAF's long period of strength cuts. A blend of separation incentives
and job-hunting assistance, the program was seen as a way of easing the anxiety
of those whose careers were cut short by the drawdown.
Drawdown Nears an End
However, that specific need has greatly diminished; USAF
states that the drawdown is about ninety percent complete. Force-outs are increasingly
rare. In 1995, the Air Force held only one Selective Early Retirement Board,
which forced out fewer than fifty officers. No SERBs are planned for 1996. USAF
does plan to roll back separation dates for 300 first-term airmen and give
early retirement to 650 officers and 1,000 enlisted troops. That is a far cry
from the years when USAF moved out as many as 7,500 officers and 24,000 enlisted
troops per year.
Even so, the transition assistance effort is programmed to
continue through the turn of the century. Today, most TAP clients are members who,
like Ms. Smith in 1993, leave the service for fairly traditional reasons. Not
surprisingly, critics in Congress have raised questions about the need to
continue a program specifically adopted to take the sting out of the force
cuts. Also not surprisingly, those Air Force officials close to the program
maintain it still serves a vital purpose.
"We now see it as part of the personnel life
cycle," said Judy Warner, head of transition assistance at the Air Force
Personnel Center, Randolph AFB, Tex. "Unlike earlier programs, this one
has its basis in law and has been included in [Pentagon] directives. . . . It has
been pretty much institutionalized."
Why continue the program? One answer, said Ms. Warner, is
that even with personnel reductions waning, many service members are separating
earlier than they had planned. For example, both officers and NCOs still are
required to retire when they reach the high year of tenure for their grades,
which is coming earlier than expected for many. During the big drawdown years,
Air Force leaders lowered the high-year-of-tenure points for airmen to
stimulate more losses. Though the drawdown has pretty much run its course, the
Air Force has not yet raised the HYT points to their former levels.
Other members also continue to leave under the Temporary
Early Retirement Act (TERA), a Congressionally approved program that allows a
uniformed member to retire with service ranging from fifteen to nineteen years.
These retirees receive reduced annuities but can claim other retirement
benefits. The Air Force will continue to use TERA to help carry out the last
phase of the draw-down. Though such retirements are considered voluntary, they
bring abrupt change for members. Many are still relying on Air Force transition
assistance to help them find second careers to supplement their reduced
Thus, say officials, the drawdown goes on, albeit at a
greatly reduced pace. For that reason, they say, the TAP effort continues to
serve its original purpose. Some argue that it can be justified for other
reasons. For example, said Ms. Warner, some young men and women considering enlistment
apparently view the assistance program as a valuable benefit. "It's a
good recruiting incentive," said Ms. Warner.
Business Still Brisk
More to the point, transition assistance officers report
that they continue to do a brisk business despite the drop in the pace of
Arnie Chavez, the transition assistance manager at Kirtland
AFB, N. M., estimates that attendance at his base's separation-related events in
1995 increased by more than forty percent over attendance in 1994, though
involuntary separations were down. "As time goes by," Mr. Chavez said,
"it seems as though the acceptance of the program and the need for it
The transition assistance center at Kirtland is one of more
than 100 such centers that have been operating at Air Force bases for several years.
Cheryl Vollmer, who manages a similar center at McChord AFB, also reports a
heavier-than-expected work load. "We aren't getting VSI [Voluntary
Separation Incentive] and SSB [Special Separation Benefit] people now,"
she said, "but we have not seen a decline in our clientele. We are getting
about 2,400 a quarter through the Employment Security and Resource Center and about
1,500 a quarter in counseling-type work."
The basic structure of today's assistance program remains
much as it was during the heavy drawdown years, despite changes in types of separations.
Its mainstay is a three-day seminar that all members must attend during the 180
days immediately preceding separation. After receiving this overview, Air
Force clients can tap into a variety of resources, including individual counseling.
At Kirtland, Mr. Chavez said, much of the emphasis is on
preparation for the move into civilian life. The seemingly simple task of
writing an effective résumé, for example, has been refined to something close
to an art form. "Nowadays," he said, "you have to think of the
type of résumé you need to apply for a specific job. A generic listing of
experiences in chronological order may not work. You need a functional résumé
designed to appeal to the specific firm."
Kirtland transition officials attempt to review service
members' résumés with the eyes of potential employers. In other sessions,
clients participate in mock interviews. Afterward, the sessions are critiqued and
clients refine their job-hunting performances.
Mr. Chavez said that the troops have to be taught how to put
their military training and experience into terms comprehensible to a civilian employer.
"We have to make them aware of how much they do have," he said.
"Most service members have had some kind of leadership or supervisory
position, but they tend to overlook that. That's an area where they need to
realize they do have abilities that will help them in the private sector."
It was that sort of preparation that Ms. Smith said helped
her overcome her separation jitters and concentrate on converting her service
experience into assets marketable in the civilian community.
Equally important, say Air Force managers, is the
recognition that military specialties are not always broad enough to satisfy
the civilian world. Many separatees need additional training to bring them up
to speed. "Some are willing to do whatever they have to as far as
education is concerned," said Mr. Chavez, "from attending a
vocational school to going to a university to get themselves into a whole new
occupation. Others will take formal education to advance themselves in the
areas where they have been working."
Either way, officials agree, early preparation is vital. At
McChord, Ms. Vollmer said, "it has been rewarding to see that people are
starting to listen and starting earlier. More people are going back to get
more education. The earlier they realize the need for it, the better."
Ms. Vollmer puts a premium on long-range planning. While members
are not required to attend transition sessions until they are within 180 days
of separation, she said, they can begin on their own even earlier. "If
they can start doing some creative things even up to two years ahead of time,
they are much better prepared."
Even those who did not invest in the GI Bill while in
service still can get in on it when they separate. A late "buy-in"
feature allows them to put up their required $1,200 contribution, and the
government will add its share. For those who can come up with the cash, it
might be a shrewd investment.
The Air Force program can provide impressive assistance to
those looking for immediate employment. Under a program overseen by the Department
of Labor, state agencies provide a number of counseling and job-hunting
At Kirtland, New Mexico's Department of Labor brings in
people from the local community to make presentations about the job outlook. A
representative of the Department of Veterans Affairs also comes in to explain
veterans' entitlements and help members fill out applications for compensation
or pensions. At McChord, the state of Washington maintains an on-site
employment office. A Veterans Affairs representative comes in once a week.
USAF transition clients also are given access to an array of
automated systems to help them review the job market. These have expanded in
recent years. "We are doing a lot of hookups with different job nets and job
information lines," Ms. Vollmer said, "so that we can get direct access
to customers in resource centers. When clients find possible employers, we
help them fax their résumés and applications so they can get a quick
Despite the availability of such automated aids, job-hunting
remains a daunting task. Transition managers cite a number of factors inhibiting
success, including government cutbacks, base closings, and smaller defense
contracts. The national economy has yet to produce a real surge in hiring.
At Kirtland, Mr. Chavez said, "1 believe things have
opened up a little, but . . . it still is not that easy to find . . .
[well-paying] jobs. . . . Those kinds of jobs are scarce."
At McChord, Ms. Vollmer said, finding work is "somewhat
a matter of being in the right place at the right time." She added,
"We see some people unemployed for up to a year and a half, and we see
others who have jobs before they even separate from the military. It's a matter
of a lot of networking, making sure you have current skills, and aligning yourself
on the career path that you want to take."
By taking specific types of jobs, early retirees who leave
with at least fifteen years of service can earn their way to the full retired
pay they would have received had they stayed in uniform for a full twenty
This is how it works: All early retirees must sign up with
the Public and Community Service (PCS) Registry, a pipeline toward jobs in
such fields as teaching, law enforcement, social services, public housing, and
conservation. Early retirees are not required to work in these areas. For those
who do, however, the program amounts to serving out the balance of a service
career in another form of public service.
Some limitations apply. One is that the retiree must enter
public service immediately after retirement or lose whatever time elapses
between then and when he does enter. Another is that retired pay is not raised
until the member reaches age sixty-two.
Being on the PCS Registry is no guarantee of a job, and
government jobs in general are scarce. When openings occur, they are often
filled by recently laid-off civil service employees who have hiring priority. Federal
or state employment is not deemed one of the best bets for early success.
Most clients also are advised to be prepared to move to
where the jobs are. Whether they want to do so depends on how much they value
location. Mr. Chavez said that at Kirtland, located near Albuquerque, only
about ten percent of separatees stay. The job market is not attractive.
At McChord, however, about half the transition clients over
the past five years have chosen to remain in the Puget Sound area. Despite some
difficult times during the defense cutbacks, the region still has a strong industrial
base and several massive military installations, all of which have escaped base
closing actions. In addition to those who separate at McChord and stay on, many
people who retire elsewhere settle in the Northwest.
For most nonretirees, separation benefits are limited and
finding jobs quickly is the imperative. Transition officials say that the
anxiety levels of their clients seem lower than they were a few years ago, but
some stress is still evident.
"I still have people say they are nervous, even those
members who are retiring," said Mr. Chavez. "The transition program
does have some avenues they can use to prevent them from getting too anxious
and losing opportunities because of it."
Mr. Chavez said that the private sector is looking to the
military for potential employees. "I'm finding that civilian employers
realize, that the experience and the discipline service members acquire are
what the private sector is looking for," he noted. "For one thing,
they realize that service members have security clearances, so [employers]
don't have to spend as much time and money getting somebody cleared from
scratch. We have gotten a number of calls from companies in the state that
want to be listed among those looking for separating members."
Bruce D. Callander, a
regular contributor to Air Force Magazine, served tours of active duty during
World War II and the Korean War. In 1952, he joined Air Force Times, becoming
editor in 1972. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, "Officer
Jobs for Enlisted Troops," appeared in the October 1995 issue.
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