FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- With unemployment rates twice as high among young veterans when compared to nonveterans in the same age group, the Department of the Army has introduced sweeping changes to the services it offers transitioning Soldiers.

As a part of the new initiative, Fort Drum is one of four installations selected to launch a pilot program through its Army Career and Alumni Program that incorporates a major component of the changes.

The six-week pilot, which is scheduled to begin March 5, takes ACAP's Transition Assistance Program employment workshop and extends its duration from two and a half days to as much as four days, depending on the level of employment readiness a Soldier exhibits.

Dubbed the Department of Labor Employment Workshop, the expanded program is intended to demonstrate the Army's strong commitment to transition services.

Although the changes could generate major challenges to resources and manpower capabilities at Fort Drum, the ACAP transition services manager here said things will begin with many pieces already in place.

"Fortunately, Fort Drum has been really leaning forward with all of this," Lorrie Guler said. "We've been way ahead of the curve."

The pilot program is aimed at providing Army leaders with invaluable feedback.

Aside from the new employment workshop, many other changes to transition policies are already in effect Armywide since first being unveiled last year.

For instance, ACAP is now a commander's program -- which is huge, Guler said.

"Instead of me going out and pulling Soldiers from their units to come up here to take care of their transition requirements, it's now up to the command to push their Soldiers up here," she said.

Another change in policy is the philosophy that transition is a lifelong process, which includes an individual's time on active duty, when planning for retirement, separation or a permanent change of station is a common reality.

Soldiers are now required to begin their preseparation process no later than 12 months before separation -- nine months sooner than the previous requirement.

Guler said that process now contains a new five-page Preseparation Counseling Checklist (DD Form 2648), an online form that provides Soldiers with referral information more than a year before their separation date, addressing everything from education, employment assistance and financial considerations, to veterans' benefits, health insurance and the effects of a career change.

After completing the checklist, service members are scheduled for a one-on-one counseling session in which they first complete an Employment Readiness Survey. Guler said the ERS, which takes roughly 20 minutes to complete online, is a self-assessment that tests a Soldier's preparedness for transition.

Soldiers come away from the ERS with a report in hand that evaluates their level of readiness.

The counselor then reviews that assessment and schedules the Soldier for the basic, intermediate or advanced module of the Department of Labor Employment Workshop. The counselor also helps the Soldier develop an Individual Transition Plan.

"We aren't sure how accurate these assessments will be -- that is something that we will be evaluating during the pilot," Guler said. "Some of our clients come in, and they are so far ahead of this that they may already have a job offer. One Soldier had his Ph.D. and already had a job lined up with a university. Those guys don't need the whole process.

"But for Soldiers who are overestimating their readiness, they won't understand the modules," she continued. "We will be able to encourage them because in the one-on-one counseling, the counselors know where a Soldier truly is at many times."

Since its inception in 1990, ACAP has offered career assistance to Soldiers, veterans, retirees and Family Members. The program also helps Army civilian employees affected by reductions in force or the base realignment and closure process.

Each year, more than 3,000 Soldiers use ACAP services at Fort Drum.

Guler said a lot of the changes to ACAP put a new emphasis on the professional development of Soldiers -- from retention NCOs encouraging personnel to pursue more schooling, licensing and certifications, to ACAP counselors and services helping to make Soldiers more marketable when they separate.

But she said getting Soldiers into ACAP may require breaking down some mindsets in the Army.
"Another thing that has really shifted is the vice chief of staff of the Army put out a letter talking about the stigma attached to Soldiers who make the decision to leave the Army," Guler said.

As it stands now, those who have decided to leave the Army are often worried what fellow Soldiers will think of them, she explained, and they may even put off making ACAP appointments to avoid word of their decision spreading in their unit, because they don't want to be seen as disloyal.

"But these guys joined the Army, and whether they stay for one tour or they stay until retirement, if they have served honorably, they've met the commitment they made," she said. "They deserve to be taken care of on the way out."

Senior leaders in the Army couldn't agree more. Installation Management Command's former commanding general said the decision to transition out of uniform is just as important as the initial decision to put it on.

"Soldiers deserve as much support at this critical point in their service as they do with earlier parts of their career," Lt. Gen. Rick Lynch said last summer. "The key to making ACAP as effective as possible is leader commitment.

"Taking care of Soldiers includes supporting their active participation in ACAP," he added, "and if a Soldier decides to separate, making sure no stigma is attached to (his or her) decision."

Senior leaders at Fort Drum agree with supporting Soldiers in transition as well. Guler said the command support at Fort Drum has been excellent.

She also noted that since the new Army policy makes it a requirement for career counselors to sit down with incoming Soldiers no later than 60 days of that person's arrival, Soldiers and their NCOs should be more proactive in the ACAP process and in meeting the new deadlines.

"Now, there will be even more of an emphasis on getting Soldiers in here to get the schooling, the licensing and the certificates that they need to meet their goals," Guler said. "If they are doing something in the Army that could lead to a certificate, they need to be encouraged to do that, because it's a part of their professional development, and it makes them more marketable when they leave."

She also noted that ACAP wants to keep good Soldiers in the Army. But that requires Soldiers making good and informed decisions.

"You have to plan ahead," she said. "You can't think that you will just walk out of the Army and just show up at the front door of a school and say you're ready to start school. There are guidelines. There are deadlines."

The new DOLEW covers the nuts and bolts of career planning and a successful job search, including labor trends, search tips and how an employer seeks out employees. Soldiers also learn resume writing, salary negotiation, effective interviewing and how to translate military skills into civilian ones.

Soldiers will now be required to produce a resume no less than five months before separation.
Many of the elements of the new workshop resemble the previous TAP workshop, which, along with a four-hour Department of Veterans Affairs benefits briefing, was a command-mandated requirement for all Soldiers at Fort Drum.

But Guler said the new workshop is a much more interactive experience with classroom discussions, video examples and nearly half the number of slides.

She said she has a few concerns about the DOLEW's basic module, because it is offered only online. Some struggle to learn in front of a computer, Guler explained, which is why she plans to offer clients a lab environment during the basic module.

"Fort Drum has really already gone to a more interactive type of workshop anyway," she said. "Even with the old curriculum, we made a real effort to make it more interactive in the classrooms. We put laptops in for Soldiers. TAP was already mandatory here."

During the pilot program, Soldiers will complete every module of the DOLEW -- basic, intermediate and advanced -- to help managers assess the true accuracy of the Employment Readiness Assessment. The workshop includes two days of intermediate training and one day of advanced.

Guler said the mandatory half-day VA benefits briefing will no longer be scheduled in conjunction with the DOLEW.

Instead, it will take place every Thursday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Soldiers are now required to attend the class no less than six months before their planned transition.

With the new schedule, ACAP also has moved the two-hour VA claims class -- which is not mandatory -- from Friday mornings to Thursdays from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. Guler said this was done so that Soldiers already at ACAP for the VA briefing can more easily arrange their schedules to attend the claims class if necessary.

Other scheduling changes include: Preseparation counseling for Soldiers in the medical evaluation board process will be scheduled on Wednesdays from 8 to 11 a.m.; the Disabled Transition Assistance Program briefing will move from Wednesday mornings to Wednesday afternoons from 1 to 3 p.m.

Guler said that with so many changes at ACAP, along with President Barack Obama's goal of reducing the Army by as many as 80,000 Soldiers, there will be a much higher demand for transition services as more Soldiers leave the Army.

"We are already scheduled eight weeks out," she said. "I will have to schedule more workshops to support the increase in transitioning Soldiers."

In addition, the expectations on Soldiers to learn more about transition and grow professionally -- whether they are staying in the Army or leaving -- will likely increase.

"Soldiers don't know what they don't know," Guler said. "When they come and sit down in the classroom, they tell us they didn't know much of what was presented. But if they know what is needed in order to be more marketable on the outside, they are going to be better Soldiers for the time they remain on active duty."