It’s a problem perhaps as old as militaries themselves—what happens to former soldiers once they leave the military? How can they apply the skills they learned in uniform to civilian occupations?
For Sergeant Michael Woolley, 31, a veteran of tours to both Bosnia and Kandahar, it seemed like the leadership and problem-solving skills he’d learned over more than a decade serving in the Canadian Forces would get him, well, not too much. “The experiences the military gave are great, but transitioning to civvy street is a huge challenge,” said Woolley.
Woolley’s aspiration is to be a business manager and he knows he’d need a business degree to get there. The big problem was that the skills he’d learned as an infantry soldier weren’t helping him get into business school.
Until he discovered the Legion Military Skills Conversion Program, that is. The program, which is sponsored by British Columbia/Yukon Command, runs out of the business department at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) in Burnaby, B.C.
While still relatively new—after a brief pilot stage, the program began accepting full-time students last year—the idea is gaining traction among Canadian Forces members looking for a relatively quick way to apply their hard-earned skills and get a marketable education.
Later this year, the program will be graduating its first students, who earned a Bachelor of Business Administration degree through the accelerated two-year course.
“There are about 15 or 16 of us spread throughout the school,” said Woolley. “The word is out there, but taking the leap of faith to go back to school is really difficult. Everyone knows the challenges they’ll face. Making it work financially is tough and learning to be a student again is not easy.”
According to Natalie Condrashoff, the program’s project manager at BCIT, “the project started as a student project in 2009 and then it was developed over 2009 and 2010 as a sort of off-the-side-of-our-desk type of thing. In February 2010, the school decided to bring it on as part of their operations as a pilot project and it’s just grown from there.”
The program is designed to help current and former military members transition to civilian employment through three different pathways. The first is to do what Woolley is doing: go to school and get some credentials. There are a variety of diploma and bachelor programs available, many of interest to former military members, such as the Bachelor of Technology in Forensic Investigation, Crime and Intelligence Analysis.
The second pathway is focused on entrepreneurship, which is run largely by the Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) group at BCIT. Students begin business consultations in the fall in order to complete a business plan by spring.
And the third pathway is simple enough: to get a job. As Condrashoff notes, this pathway gives the veterans “assistance in developing their resume, their cover letter and making sure their skills and abilities are understandable by a civilian employer.”
Enrolling in the program carries no charge to the transitioning student, they simply have to pay fees at BCIT as would any other student. Funding for the program has come largely from the Legion.
“As of September 1, 2011, the B.C./Yukon Command has agreed to fund the program with $250,000 over four years, which will go towards developing the program further,” said Condrashoff. “There’s a priority for employing military students whenever possible within the program; and as we better cement the program, the remainder of the money is going to go toward scholarships and bursaries.”
According to B.C./Yukon Command President Bob Brady, the Legion Military Skills Conversion Program is a natural fit for the organization.
“At B.C./Yukon Command,” said Brady, “our strategy for veterans’ services is following the concept of the ‘continuum of care.’ We have programs on one end of the continuum, which help the neediest homeless veterans. For those who require advocacy we offer the traditional service officer outreach. For those suffering in silence, we have another level of care with our Trauma and PTSD Transition Counselling Program. Adding this final piece, with the Legion Military Skills Conversion Program offering post-secondary education for people transitioning out of the military was the natural evolution to being there for every life stage of our Canadian veterans.”
It’s no surprise the program is gaining popularity. Not only are service members making inquiries from all across Canada, but they’ve even gotten e-mails from soldiers in Afghanistan, looking to sign up.
“We’re getting a lot of interest, particularly from the navy. We’ve been meeting with Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt to see how we can better serve the interests of the navy,” said Condrashoff.
While some similar initiatives exist in the United States, the Legion Military Skills Conversion is currently at the forefront in Canada.
David Sinclair, chair of the B.C./Yukon Legion Foundation said, “We know programs exist, for some segments of the military, which assist with the transition to private sector professional credentials. However, we felt that this custom model at BCIT where veterans, who wish to continue their education, or get help with job searches or even start a business, can get individualized help was a missing critical service to veterans.”
For Woolley, it’s been a challenging couple of years. He hasn’t received any kind of financial aid—no bursaries or scholarships or assistance from the military—but he says it’s still been worth it.
“The whole thing has turned out to be a lot more than what I thought it was,” said Woolley. “At first, it was just a way for me to get done school quicker, but now, after being here and getting involved in activities, it’s been much more beneficial than I ever imagined, it’s allowed me to see the skills that I learned in the military are transferable.”
To find more information about the program, visit www.bcit.ca/legion/