Making a (Digital) Military to Civilian Transition: How Service Members Look to USO Pathfinder® for Help

By Danielle DeSimone

In early March 2020, the veteran unemployment rate in the United States was at 3.5%. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Just one month later, unemployment among veterans leapt to 12%.

The challenges in trading a military career, community and way of life for a civilian one that is completely unfamiliar can be overwhelming for all members of the military community even in the best of times. It is especially overwhelming now, in the middle of a global pandemic, as service members and military spouses are searching for employment alongside the more than 40 million Americans who have lost their jobs due to COVID-19.

Finding that path from military to civilian life in these challenging times has required the ability to quickly adapt to an ever-changing situation – a skill that just so happens to be something the military – and the USO – is especially known for.

Why is it Hard to Transition out of the Military?

Service members and military families overcome a great deal throughout the course of their time in service. However, the challenge of transitioning from military to civilian life is an obstacle often overlooked by the general public.

According to the Blue Star Families’ 2019 Military Family Lifestyle Survey, 30% of American veterans listed employment as their top issue. It’s no secret that when service members are searching for a new job after transitioning out of the military, they can sometimes find it difficult to translate their military experience onto a civilian resume. This can be because they themselves might not appreciate the skills they’ve acquired in service, or because it’s challenging to re-frame those skills within the civilian job market.

Service members can also struggle to simply understand what type of career would best align with their skills and experience, making it even more difficult to even know where to start. Recently-transitioned service members also showed trepidation in tackling employment outside of the military, with 54% of female veterans and 35% of male veterans saying they were not prepared to navigate resources in their local community.

To make matters worse, some veterans feel that potential employers do not want to hire veterans and actively avoid doing so.

As a result, nearly one third of veteran job seekers are underemployed; that is, being paid lower than their education or work experience, and working jobs that they are overqualified for. This is double the underemployment rate for civilians.

Additionally, if a service member does in fact secure a civilian job, they must also now adjust to a completely different way of working. Many service members struggle to go from a structured, process-driven work environment to a more relaxed office space. Even when they’ve reached the finish line, transitioning to a civilian workforce can still be difficult.

What is it Like to Be a Working Military Spouse?

For military spouses, the search for employment is a constant one.

For military spouses, the search for employment is a constant one, as they make daily sacrifices in their own lives on behalf of their service member’s career with each new duty station. Military life is demanding, and it can be difficult for military spouses to sustain a career when moving every two to three years. Many employers shy away from hiring military spouses, knowing that they will inevitably have to leave. Additionally, when their service member is deployed, military spouses must also take on the mantle of single parenting, leaving them with even less time to work while taking care of their children.

As a result, 24% of military spouses are unemployed. Of those who are employed, 77% of them are underemployed.

And now, as members of the military community are searching for employment, the competition is fierce. They are entering a job hunt alongside more than 40 million other Americans who are now unemployed due to COVID-19.

Why is it Hard to Transition from Military to Civilian Life?

Photo credit USO Photo

Adjusting to life beyond the military is not only a matter of finding a new job – it also means that service members and military spouses must adapt to a completely new community and way of life.

Transitioning out of the military isn’t just an employment issue – it’s a personal lifestyle issue as well.

The military lifestyle fosters a strong sense of community – when you’re out to sea for nine months, stationed in an unfamiliar country, or even just far from loved ones, military members know that they can lean on one another for support. Military members also know that their fellow service members or military spouses are some of the only people who can fully understand the unique challenges that come with a military lifestyle. In fact, statistics confirm this. 40% of active duty service members and military spouses do not feel a sense of belonging to their local civilian community – so that sense of community within the military is even more important, and is why most military members’ social lives are rooted entirely among those closest to them.

This loss of community and sense of identity can be a difficult part of a service member or military spouse’s military to civilian transition. Suddenly, they are no longer active duty – they are a veteran. And without those social support systems in place, many military members can suddenly feel isolated as they move to civilian life.

Military Members Find Their Path with USO Pathfinder Transition Program

Photo credit USO Photo

A service member and a military spouse meet with a USO Pathfinder Transition Specialist to discuss next steps in their career searches beyond the military.

These challenges and factors may all seem somewhat daunting, but there are resources in place to help service members and their families navigate employment and life beyond the military. One of those resources is the USO Pathfinder® transition program.

Our organization’s mission is to support American service members and their families from the moment they join, through their assignments and deployments, and as they transition back to their communities. That includes the moment in which our troops trade their fatigues for a suit and tie.

“What is most tragic is when transitioning resources and services provided by various military branches exist, but our service members and military spouses either don’t know about them or don’t know how to access them,” Danielle Haro, USO programs development specialist, said. “That is what makes our program so important – we serve as the critical connector to these resources and we have been recognized as a leading and trusted organization to do so.”

The USO Pathfinder transition program helps service members and military spouses through the process of transitioning out of military life through customized action plans and one-on-one advising on job-searching, finances, education and more. Because of this individualized approach, Pathfinder transition participants are connected with resources that are unique to their specific goals and needs. Many of the USO staff that help guide service members through the program are veterans or military spouses themselves, so they have an in-depth understanding of what their program participants are going through.

The program has also offered service members and military spouses the opportunity, in partnership with Google, to earn their Google IT Support Professional Certificate, which can assist participants in their job search when entering the IT workforce. Among the many other opportunities offered through the Pathfinder transition program, this certificate has been especially helpful and accessible to military spouses – who make up 44% of Google IT Support Professional Certificate USO Pathfinder participants – as many IT support jobs are remote, meaning that spouses can maintain their career no matter where military life takes them.

USO Pathfinder Transition Program Assists Military in Finding Jobs During COVID-19

Photo credit USO Photo

Service members and military spouses often struggle to find employment outside of the military. The USO Pathfinder transition program is trying to help – and that is especially important now, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, with 40 million Americans out of work.

The global COVID-19 outbreak has made it apparent that online and virtual services are crucial in today’s modern world. That’s why, as thousands of service members deployed to the front lines of the pandemic and military families adjusted to a new normal of social distancing, the USO also adjusted its programs to support the military community digitally.

The USO Pathfinder transition program quickly went virtual and engaged with program participants, encouraging them to make the best of their time in quarantine or under stay-at-home orders to further their career search journey. The program has been offering the same support to transitioning service members and military spouses over these past few months, but now with advice and counseling being provided via services such as video calls, LinkedIn webinars, resume workshops and interview preparation sessions.

The results have been incredible – hundreds of service members and military spouses have been tuning into these online sessions. In total, there are currently 4,290 participants currently enrolled in the Pathfinder transition program and utilizing the USO’s services. So far, in 2020 alone, 124 individuals have completed the Google IT Support Professional Certificate, bringing the total number of completed certificates through the USO and Google to 416 since the program was first launched in late 2018. Of those 416, 91 of them have contacted the USO after completing the program to report that they’ve been hired. Today, more than 100 Pathfinder transition program participants are currently enrolled, furthering their chances at finding employment beyond the military.

For many of the more than 4,000 Pathfinder transition program participants, this evolution to virtual support was an easy one. For some, it even held an advantage. Aside from having the flexibility to learn from home, participants also had the chance to “speak” with others in the webinar chat rooms without the pressure of labels, such as rank, job status or family size. One participant shared that she was able to make meaningful connections with another participant during a webinar that she knew would have otherwise never been possible in-person, as she would have been far too intimidated by the person’s rank. Others have found refuge in connecting online with a community that shares their struggles and goals in a time of social distancing, when human connection can be difficult to come by.

The path from a military life to a civilian one can undoubtedly be challenging. It is important that service members and military spouses know that even as they transition from the military, the USO and the military community stands ready to support them as they find their way.

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As the COVID-19 outbreak is evolving, the USO has pivoted resources across the entire global enterprise in an approach that helps care for military members and their families.

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