2015 Management Excellence

Susan S. Kelly and the DOD Transition to Veterans Program Office

Transformed and enhanced how the federal government annually prepares more than 200,000 service members for their transition to civilian life.

For the more than 200,000 men and women leaving the military every year, finding employment and transitioning to a new life can be difficult and sometimes quite traumatic.

“You don’t know what’s out there and how you’ll fit into civilian life,” said Marine Sgt. Maj. Jim Booker, 53, who is leaving the military in July after 32 years of service. Booker said his confidence has been boosted and his job-search skills sharpened by the Department of Defense’s (DOD) newly designed Transition Assistance Program, an initiative managed by Susan Kelly.

As head of the DOD’s Transition to Veterans Program Office, Kelly has led the sweeping overhaul of the 20-year-old program, helping service members begin considering their transition out of the military long before discharge, and collaborating with a number of federal agencies to provide far more extensive and focused assistance than was provided in the past.

“Susan has changed how DOD thinks about the transition process,” said Teresa Gerton, deputy assistant secretary for Veterans’ Employment and Training Services at the Department of Labor. “It’s gone from, ‘You’re transitioning in six weeks – good luck!’ to ‘From the minute that someone puts a uniform on, we have to be talking to them about someday, sooner or later, you’re going to be a civilian again, so let’s make sure you are prepared for that transition.’”

Stephanie Barna, principal deputy secretary of defense for readiness and force management, said Kelly “built this program from an empty room with simply the law and a White House mandate to guide her.”

“She started from nothing and now has a full-fledged program operating at 206 sites worldwide, covering every service, incorporating other federal agencies and doing it in less than two years,” said Barna.

Under the new federal program authorized by the 2011 VOW to Hire Heroes Act, transition planning begins at the service member’s first permanent duty station, usually after one year of service. Service members are offered counseling and assistance to align their training and military career with what they eventually want to do as civilians.

As service members near the end date of their military service, the counseling intensifies and touches on everyday issues that may not have been a concern, such as how to find a job, dress for an interview, write a resume, choose a health care plan and manage personal finances. These sessions are small enough—generally 50-60 people in a room—to be hands-on and personal compared to previous iterations that included large lecture halls of 300 members.

The presenters and counselors come from the DOD and a variety of federal departments. Representatives from the Department of Labor, for instance, discuss workforce issues, and officials from the Department of Veterans Affairs offer counseling about benefits.

The transition program also offers assistance from the Small Business Administration regarding loans for starting a business, information from the Department of Education about educational opportunities and advice from the Office of Personnel Management regarding employment in the federal government.

Some of the information and help now offered was available in the past, but the service members often would have to go from agency to agency to find it, navigating multiple websites and 1-800 numbers.

“Susan has ensured that those agencies are all on-site. She and her team have brought it together,” said Barna.

“Susan is really good at encouraging, supporting, collaborating and getting to see how the different parts fit together, which is why the program has been so successful,” added Mark Breckenridge, deputy director at the Defense Manpower Data Center. “Susan does a wonderful job allowing others to see how their contributions will fit in.”

Among the challenges in putting the program together has been working with four different military departments, traditions and populations. “Susan has really had to work to bring each of them into this program in accordance with their culture,” Barna said.

In surveys, more than three-quarters of the attendees reported the program has prepared them to be “career-ready” and provided access to resources that would help in civilian life.

Kelly said the revamped transition program is more comprehensive and more focused than in the past on getting service members to start aligning their military training with what they may want to do in the long term as a civilian.

“That’s the crux of the entire change, having the system acknowledge that everyone, whether you are a four-star general or serving only four years in active duty, will separate from the military service and go into civilian life,” said Kelly. “No matter how old you are, you will not go fishing and hunting the rest of your life.”