WASHINGTON — Preparation and an ability to adapt helped Staff Sgt. Zachary Olson win the 2023 Secretary of the Army Career Counselor of the Year competition, the Soldier said.
Olson took first place for the active-duty component and Sgt. 1st Class Antoni Bukowski earned top honors for the Army Reserve. The Soldiers accepted the awards from Secretary of the Army Christine E. Wormuth in a ceremony Friday, March 31, 2023, after winning competitions at the division and command levels.
The Army’s career counselors have adjusted to meet the Army’s changing needs, Wormuth said. The nation’s largest military branch has turned towards bolstering retention numbers to sustain the force. In fiscal year 2023, the Army has already retained more than 28,000 active-duty Soldiers and transitioned about 3,050 into the National Guard and Reserve.
The Army retained 104% of its retention goals in fiscal 2022, and Wormuth credited the Army’s career counselors in helping the service reach that pinnacle.
Wormuth emphasized that career counselors play a critical role in helping the Army keep its skilled workforce. She said that the counselors help the Army build on its investment made in Soldiers and in turn, allows Soldiers to continue investing in themselves.
“This is a responsibility and a charge that has never been more important, probably in the entire 50-year history of our all-volunteer force,” Wormuth said to the recipients.
During the competition about 12 Soldiers participated in the Army Combat Fitness Test, a 50-question exam and two mystery events. In the first, Soldiers explained an Army policy change that significantly impacted retention. In the second, they performed quality checks on a random retention task. A panel of judges then evaluated the Soldiers.
In Olson’s three years as a career counselor at Fort Carson, Colorado, he has seen the impact of his profession. He studies Army retention policies and informs Soldiers about their career options, which includes coordinating assignment opportunities, promotions and assuring Soldiers receive benefits that include reenlistment bonuses.
He also draws upon his own experiences as a Soldier. A native of Asheboro, North Carolina, he previously worked as a vehicle mechanic and dispatcher at Fort Hood, Texas, and at Fort Carson. Olson enlisted in the Army in October 2009 and has deployed to Kuwait in 2015. He said he sought the advice of a career counselor as he transitioned between career fields and assignments.
“Back when I first joined [the Army] both Iraq and Afghanistan were still hot,” Olson said. “People were still deploying all the time. A lot of Soldiers were fulfilled because they could see the end result of their missions and everything associated.”
Career counselors not only provide guidance on the Soldiers’ next steps, they also inspire troops to broaden their skills and become productive leaders, Olson added.
“With the drawdown of the insurgency and those deployments no longer being frequent, Soldiers struggled to find a purpose in what to do,” Olson said. “One of the things that I try to lean them in on, is that they are either the leaders of today or they’re going to be future non-commissioned officers that might be the leaders of the next conflict.”
Olson said when retention needs increase, career counselors’ work load in his unit can double as they work extra hours to retain Soldiers. The counselors not only advise Soldiers on their career, but also coach their families on their next steps as a Soldier transitions to their next assignment.
Career counselors also take on additional tasks such as performing safety duties at firing ranges and assisting with physical training sessions and high publicity events. Olson said that Soldiers’ needs have increasingly become more complex in certain career fields.
“I would say that it is a very demanding job,” said Olson, who placed first in the 2023 Army Forces Command competition after finishing second in 2021. “You have to be very responsible. You have to be a self-starter. You have to hold yourself accountable. You’re a one-stop shop for a lot of things. But … when you see the impact of the fruits of your labor, you create the conditions for success for another Soldier.”
Olson recalled one instance when he helped a Soldier who had struggled to receive his enlistment bonus for five years after losing the necessary paperwork. After some research, Olson found that the Soldier needed a new copy of his Advanced Individual Training certificate and helped him receive his bonus.
“Every single day we counsel the Soldiers and their families to the best of our abilities and, they’re going to make an informed decision based off of that,” Olson said. “The ability of us to do so in a way that Soldiers can see benefits of the team service is going to be what ultimately determines the success. We have some very talented individuals in our field and, it’s because of those talents [that] we are able to assist in the end-strength goals of our service based off of that.”
Bukowski grew up in the Chicago suburb of Villa Park, Illinois, and enlisted in the Army Reserve in 1998. Bukowski competed in the 2014 Best Soldier competition for NCO of the Year, where he took best shooter honors.
He began serving as an Army Reserve career counselor in 2015. Bukowski said his goals will be to earn his master’s degree and eventually make the rank of sergeant major.
Olson said that he plans to continue serving as a career counselor but eventually land an assignment as an operations non-commissioned officer. Both Soldiers received a Meritorious Service medal and the Sgt. Maj. Jerome Pionk Excellence in Retention medal.
“It’s really amazing and important work that you’re doing,” Wormuth said to the competitors. “You’re all here not just because of the hard work that you’ve done over the course of the year, but every day you all embody the career counselor values of truth, honesty and loyalty.”