An Airman checks the pressure on a tires at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, on Jan. 14, 2015.

An Airman checks the pressure on a tires at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, on Jan. 14, 2015. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Nicole Sikorski

A New Way To Help Our Troops Enter the Workforce

The Pentagon’s latest initiative connects employers to troops before they leave the military, so they’re better trained and ready to work when they do.

Last month, President Barack Obama visited Hill Air Force Base, in Utah, to announce that the Departments of Defense and Energy would work together to help train transitioning service members at 10 military bases around the country for jobs in the solar energy industry. This announcement was just the latest example of how a new Defense Department initiative called SkillBridge can help ease our military service members shift to civilian life while delivering value to the American economy.           

SkillBridge allows eligible transitioning service members to participate in job skills training, including apprenticeships and internships. The training, which can be provided by companies, trade unions, and certain academic institutions, can begin as early as six months before service members leave the military, but typically occurs two to three months before separation.  

For companies, SkillBridge makes good business sense. It allows participating businesses and other training providers to gain early access to highly skilled service members as prospective employees before they become veterans. Since service members continue to receive military pay and benefits while participating, the training provider does not pay the service member to participate. The training must be provided at no or relatively little cost to military personnel and must offer a high probability of employment. At the same time, SkillBridge minimizes risk for businesses by allowing a test-run with a potential employee.

Already some 1,500 members of our military have participated in such training across a variety of industries, many obtaining jobs through their participation.  

We have learned from a number of companies that have started SkillBridge programs, from General Motors to Georgia Power to Microsoft, that our service members are delivering immense business value. Microsoft, through its Microsoft Academies at several military installations such as Fort Hood in Texas, is training service members in the high-growth information technology field. Microsoft’s Vice President Chris Cortez said last month, “These young military people bring skills, work ethic, and this is the kind of employee the industry needs today.” 

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said, “These brave men and women … are ready to bring their experience, talent, and leadership abilities to the private sector.”

Marine Corps Sgt. Damian Gilbert, who just graduated from a SkillBridge welding skills training program at Camp Lejeune, is one such example. Though he had no previous welding experience, Gilbert says the program gave him the “great opportunity” to prove his skills. He calls going into welding “a dream job,” and will soon be starting on his new career. This program, sponsored by the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry, addresses a nationwide skills gap and labor shortage for welders by providing training for transitioning service members at seven military bases.

The solar industry, which is adding jobs 10 times faster than the rest of the economy, is also primed to hire service members that graduate from these training programs. 

Still, we need many more companies and industries to offer training opportunities for our troops.  Businesses should build such a bridge to our transitioning service members not out of generosity, but because it makes simple economic sense to do so.