The Defense Department has modified its Transition Assistance Program to include mandatory meetings and to give airmen a more structured program for exiting military service. (Tech.Sgt. Jennifer Lindsey / Air Force)
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Staff Sgt. Nicole Fletcher admits that she was intimidated by looking for a job once she got out of the Air Force.
What should she say about her military experience if she landed an interview, she wondered? How should she dress for the interview? To top it off, she wasn't sure her job as a personnelist would translate into civilian employment.
So, she decided her plan wasn't to look for a job. Fletcher would go to culinary school full time and then, once she finished, pursue a job in food services.
But a chance to go through the redesigned Transition Assistance Program, which becomes mandatory for separating and retiring military members Nov. 21, at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph helped her realize she has more options than she thought.
"It was a big eye-opener," said Fletcher, who is separating after 13 years of service for medical reasons. "After going through the course, getting those skills and being equipped with the knowledge to actually obtain a decent job, I'm actually excited to go out and put that to use."
Though she still plans to go to culinary school, Fletcher said she's got new, interview-worthy clothes in her closet and can articulate how the experience and training she's received in the service would benefit a future employer. She's also telling her fellow airmen about the new program.
"I've actually been bragging about the TAP program since I got back," she said. "I've been making copies of handouts that I have. I also bring all of my TAP documents in to work with me.
"I'm trying to get everybody in there now because … we have a lot of senior members here getting close to 20 years," she said.
Peggy Rayfield and Vonda Ware, chief and deputy chief, respectively, of the Air Force Transition Assistance Operation, hope they'll hear more of that kind of praise from airmen separating and retiring from the service.
Rayfield said the only thing mandatory about the old TAP program was the pre-separation counseling, where airmen learned about post-retirement and separation benefits. Additional workshops on employment and classes on résumé writing and interviewing were optional.
But Rayfield said under the redesigned program, created by the 2011 Veterans Opportunity to Work to Hire Heroes Act, military members will have a more structured program that gives them a game plan for entering civilian life. The program also has a lot of commander support and involvement, she said.
So, while there is no specific policy in place to keep you from leaving if you let it slip off the radar, she doesn't suggest you try skipping out on the courses.
"Of course we'll be tracking and monitoring," she said, "[but] it's not going to be easy to leave without it."
In addition to being mandatory, TAP now is five days and includes a financial planning workshop; a military occupational specialty code crosswalk to help members translate their military skills; a Veterans Affairs benefits briefing; and the development of an individual transition plan that outlines a way forward for pursuing a college education, career technical training or starting a business.
Ninety days before separation, military members go through a review process called a "capstone event" to ensure that all the previous steps have been taken. Military members will be encouraged to complete any missing steps.
Ware said retiring service members can go through the program up to two years before separation, while separating members can go through up to a year before leaving. As was the practice under the old program, spouses are allowed and encouraged to participate in the program because they are transitioning, too, Ware said.
"Oftentimes, we'll hear feedback that spouses hear different things from the service members," she said, "so it's great that two sets of ears actually attend to make sure that all bases are covered."
Chief Master Sgt. William Cavenaugh, command chief for the Air Force Recruiting Service, said the new program covers exactly what airmen should be considering if they're thinking about separating or retiring. And the sooner they start thinking about those issues, the better, said Cavenaugh, who is just a month shy of the 28-year mark and considering whether to retire now or shoot for 30.
"There are a lot of things that you don't know — the various VA benefits, the timelines that you have to work through," said Cavenaugh, who went through the program in September. "If you wait until six months prior to leaving the Air Force to start trying to wrap your mind around all this, it can be very, very overwhelming."
Rayfield said in fiscal 2014, the transition program will become a part of the military member's life cycle, which means members will hear about the process of transitioning back to civilian life earlier in their careers.
"We're still developing that," she said, "but we'll talk to them about it from accession, all the way through to, ‘What do I want to do when I separate or retire?' and we'll talk about it throughout their career."