Marine Corps Cuts Time for SkillBridge Transition Program, Citing a Drain on 'Unit Readiness'

U.S. Marines and Navy sailors attend a SkillBridge expo
U.S. Marines and Navy sailors attend a SkillBridge expo at Marston Pavilion on Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, Feb. 28, 2023. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Antonino Mazzamuto)

The Marine Corps is now limiting the time Marines can participate in a program intended to provide service members a smooth transition into the civilian workforce, citing years of lost manpower.

In an administrative message posted Monday, the service said that the SkillBridge initiative -- a normally six-month program started by the Pentagon more than 10 years ago to address military-to-civilian hiring opportunities after the 2008 financial crisis -- is being cut to three or four months for Marines, depending on rank.

Marines with the rank of sergeant and below are limited to 120 days at the end of their service to participate in the program; staff noncommissioned officers, warrant officers and officers are allotted 90 days. The Corps said that its Manpower and Reserve Affairs "conservatively" estimated that more than 3,400 years of manpower were provided "external to the Marine Corps" between fiscal years 2021 and 2024.

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"The impact on the command and needs of the service must be considered and prioritized, and readiness to the force remains paramount," the Marine Corps message said.

The SkillBridge program gives service members an opportunity to "gain valuable civilian work experience" during their last days of service through training, apprenticeships or internships, according to the Pentagon. The Pentagon said the program is also valuable to the civilian industry in that it can tap into a "highly trained and motivated" population at no cost to the employer.

    Troops participating in the program still receive military compensation and benefits while they work for the civilian sector. They are also still subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, or UCMJ, and their chain of command's authority during their time in the program.

    "With the availability of this opportunity and other resources that support transition from uniformed service, Manpower and Reserve Affairs reviewed the impacts to unit readiness and updated the parameters of the program," the message said. "The update balances transition support and force readiness. SkillBridge authorization is at the commander's discretion; it is not a service member’s entitlement."

    The balance between giving service members a smooth shot at the civilian world on their way out and maintaining "unit readiness" has long been a sticking point for the program, as well as the transition from the military in general.

    In 2022, reported that, based on a Defense Department inspector general report and veteran testimony, the transition assistant program, or TAP, is peppered with low participation, delays and unwarranted denials.

    Then, recently separated service members told that the SkillBridge program, which operates under the overall transition apparatus, was valuable but not always available to them, because their commanders denied their participation due to mission or training requirements.

    According to the DoD IG report, the SkillBridge program requires transitioning service members to research potential employers, submit applications, complete interviews with said employer, and obtain their commander's approval to participate if selected by the employer.

    "As a result, service members who start less than a year in advance may not have enough time to participate in SkillBridge and may miss opportunities to obtain a job upon leaving the military," the IG report said.

    The new Marine Corps message now breaks the population of participants and duration into three categories, which is meant to support "commanders in evaluating the impact of individual Marines' requests to participate in SkillBridge with mission and unit readiness requirements," said Maj. Danielle Phillips, a spokesperson for Manpower and Reserve Affairs.

    The first category includes privates to sergeants who can participate in the program for four months and must obtain approval from their lieutenant colonel commander -- an update that is two months short of the current Pentagon-wide allotment.

    The second category includes staff noncommissioned officers up to the rank of gunnery sergeant, junior warrant officers and officers up to the rank of major; they also have to get approval from the first lieutenant colonel in the chain of command, but can only participate in the SkillBridge program for three months.

    The third and final category includes all other higher ranks, who can participate for 90 days, but must get approval from a general officer in their chain of command.

    "The additional allotted time for Category I participants is because many young Marines enlist without prior commercial sector experience, and the population separating after an initial enlistment stand to benefit the most from a longer period of training with industry," Phillips said.

    "The Marine Corps is committed to returning quality citizens and making resources available to ease the transition from uniformed service to successful commercial sector employment, which is why those Marines with the greatest need are afforded the most time to train," she added.

    Last week, Rand Corp., a military-focused think tank, released a study that said military transition programs are heavily focused on education, but are not spending enough resources to give service members a direct opportunity to find employment.

    Along with little oversight, the Rand study said that "there is also limited assistance for finding civilian apprenticeships or jobs, and few resources are available for connecting them with civilian employers."

    While the study did not cite the initiative directly, the SkillBridge program intends to do just that. But Rand found "there is virtually no evidence that any of the programs we examine have had a direct effect on transition outcomes."

    Reports of the Marine Corps update to the SkillBridge program surfaced last October when a new policy document -- which echoed the message posted Monday -- was "prematurely" posted online, according to Marine Corps Times.

    Current Army and Air Force policies align with the Pentagon's six-month maximum for the program. Last year, the Navy limited grades E-6 to O-4 to 120 days or less in the program. Senior officers were limited to 90 days or less, but junior enlisted were still granted the full 180 days, according to a Navy administrative message from March.

    "The Marine Corps supports the goal of SkillBridge, which is to facilitate service members' transition into the civilian workforce by providing them an opportunity to gain valuable experience through industry training, apprenticeships or internships," Phillips said.

    "Commanders are reminded, however, that SkillBridge is not an entitlement and participation does impact readiness," she continued. "The updated three-category system is a step toward ensuring Marines at all levels understand the premium we place on readiness as the nation's crisis response force."

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