A 2020 Department of Veterans Affairs study on the Department of Defense’s Transition Assistance Program, or TAP, the program responsible for preparing 250,000 service members every year to leave the military, found that “many veterans did not understand the magnitude of the issues they might face when transitioning to civilian life.”

DoD-run TAP programs are congressionally mandated for service members. Some programs, like SkillBridge, consistently get good reviews from service members who know well ahead of time what future careers interest them.

It’s hard to help people find a fulfilling career path, especially those service members who are unsure of their next step or who feel pigeon-holed into certain industries because of their technical skills. The amount of paperwork and mandatory training can make the separation process feel overwhelming, and burdensome, for anyone.

That’s where a robust network of civilian nonprofits comes in.

Veterans and separating active duty personnel have highlighted programs like the COMMIT Foundation, Shift, Veterati, and FourBlock as hidden transition gems. Personal focus on what individual military members and vets want is central to these programs. Those who sign up can choose to be paired with mentors (often veterans themselves) who have found success in desired areas of industry and education.

If the DoD-mandated TAP courses focus on bare-bones stuff like creating a LinkedIn profile, how to dress for success, and getting your VA benefits, then these nonprofits are the meat and potatoes — usually for free.

Having a solid career path in mind isn’t a prerequisite — exploring options and career pivots is heavily encouraged. Programs also provide the added benefit of networking, a skill that’s often loathed, but critical when entering the civilian workforce. One study showed that 70 percent of survey respondents were hired at a job where they already had a connection.

The groups aren’t generally well-advertised and are normally passed by word of mouth between veterans and their still-transitioning buddies. Many groups are also open to military spouses looking to jump into a job search or make a career pivot. FourBlock will offer a free 10 week program for spouses this February, and its course “Find Your Calling,” aims to help service members answer the question “what should I do next?”

“There’s so much advice indiscriminately being thrown at servicemembers. It can be hard to figure out what’s best for the individual,” said Sergio Padilla, a team member at BreakLine, a group that helps connect military members with information and mentorship on careers in the tech industry. “I found BreakLine back in 2019 as a resource, five years after my transition. I made a lot of mistakes and had a tough transition.”

Army veteran Kyle Eberly jumped into a Deloitte veterans business program and a Goldman Sachs veterans internship when he transitioned. He now runs a popular Instagram account, “Sitreps2Steercos”, and blog devoted to helping service members transition into business education and the corporate world.

“I get a lot of transitioning military reaching out who don’t understand just how complex the civilian labor market is,” Eberly said. “Many have no idea the sheer breadth and variety of high paying career options that leverage directly or indirectly their military experience, how the hiring process works, or how you get considered for different careers.”

Focusing on a transition early can also help people realize that simply being a veteran rarely bumps them to the front of the employment line. “Service members have a lot of misconceptions around how their military service and experience is valued in the civilian labor market,” he continued. “It’s important for them to understand how competitive the hiring market is. The more they can learn from veterans who have transitioned successfully the better their outcomes will be.”

One Marine still on active duty shared her experience with civilian transition groups. “I’ve met with four different mentors all from different industries through Veterati — they were all really helpful and nice, and explained their career paths.”

She also met with two mentors at COMMIT and liked that it “focused on addressing gaps in imagination and confidence” since so many veterans mistakenly assume their military skills earmark them only for careers in government or defense contracting.

She eventually signed up for a Shift cohort that met twice weekly over Zoom, and did the “Career Accelerator” program. “I did Shift’s Career Accelerator and soon had 2 small tech companies reach out to me about potentially doing a SkillBridge with them.”

Now, she’ll be starting an internship with one of those companies in a few weeks.

Some services to help transitioning vets taper off at the 3-year mark. That’s not a lot of time, considering some studies show half of veterans will leave their first post-military job within 12 months of leaving the military, often spurred by underemployment.

A 2020 RAND study showed most veterans made less money in their first year of separation, compared to wages earned in their final year of active duty. Transition programs can help alleviate that wage gap.

Researchers focused on veteran transitions reaffirmed the importance of supplemental transition programs last year in an OpEd — interview prep, resume writing, and individual mentorship can be crucial for post-military success. Unemployed study participants were twice as likely to find a job if they used civilian transition programs. Those programs also proved to boost promotions and raises for veterans.

“It’s an awareness campaign, to get service members to understand everything they will need to transition,” said Abby Peterson, a Marine Corps veteran who now works for the COMMIT Foundation. Along with personal mentorship and workshops, COMMIT offers a course called “Pursue Your Purpose,” to help those transitioning narrow down what a fulfilling future could look like.

“I felt like there was such an emphasis on ‘get a job,’” Peterson said of her own transition.

“It’s really about finding out what you want to do.”

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