Building the Bridge to Civilian Employment

welder at work

A few years ago, National Public Radio (NPR) featured a story in which retired Army medic vet Nick Colgin was interviewed by John Donvan on "Talk of the Nation." When asked about major challenges veterans of the Iraqi and Afghanistan wars faced upon return to civilian life, he expressed his frustration over gaining employment. One area Colgin identified as a key deterrent to employment was the lack of formal credentials, certificates or certifications. Here is an excerpt of that interview:

Nick Colgin: "I went out into the job market, and I'm trying to convey to them that, 'Hey, I'm really good at what I do. I'm the tip of the spear at medical care.' And they didn't realize that because I lacked the certifications. I could be a medic in the Army; when I get out, it doesn't transfer out.

"And also, a lot of civilian employers don't understand what it means to be a medic overseas or be a truck driver overseas. They don't realize the qualifications that come along with that."

John Donvan: So why were they telling you that they were not hiring you?

Colgin: "They told me they were not hiring me because [of] the lack of certification."

Donvan: You needed your paperwork and some sort of ...

Colgin: "You needed the paperwork. You get trained to a high level within your field while in the military, but certifications don't come along with that training."

Donvan: So all of the work that you did over there, and also here in the states, there's no piece of paper you can come out with and prove in the same way you have a discharge paper, you can't say I'm a trained medic and I can walk into this job?

Colgin: "It depends. Most people come out; you have very basic certifications. Like I had a nationally certified EMTB [emergency medical technician basic], which is the most basic-level medical certification you can get coming out. And it's just a small step over a CPR certification to most people."

Donvan: So where did this leave you at that point?

Colgin: "This left me receiving an unemployment check. It left me -- I was trying to -- I was injured overseas as well, so I was trying to navigate the VA health-care system. It left me severely depressed and unable to care not only for myself but for my wife as well.

Excerpt from Donvan, J. (Oct. 10, 2011; 1 p.m.). "Soldiers Say It's Hard To Return To Civilian Life," Talk of the Nation, National Public Radio.

This is a typical concern voiced by veterans returning from tour and seeking employment in civilian life. The Pew Research group released a report in October 2011 that focused on the unique challenges returning service people face as they strive to readapt to civilian life and employment. While 98% of active military in the 2011 study had a high school degree (which is higher than the general population), only 17% had an advanced degree.

Cuts in the GI Bill funding, as well as the time involved, makes it often difficult for a returning service person to earn a degree. This poses very real challenges to veterans who wish to seek employment in jobs that are accompanied with compensation that commiserates with their experience." Bottom line: That "piece of paper" and opportunities to gain additional education, training and connections to the civilian workforce do make a difference.

Answering the Call in 2012: The Department of Defense Military Credentialing and Licensing Task Force

A task force was initiated by the Obama administration in late 2012 to review the role of credentialing, certifications and certificate programs for military to civilian employment, find ways to expedite credentialing based on life experience and explore best practices.

One key finding that emerged from the task force is that, "despite having valuable military experience, veterans frequently find it difficult to obtain formal private-sector recognition of their military training, experiences and skill sets through civilian certification and licensure." (OOP, February 2013) Employers not only value the experiences and skills candidates bring to the organization, but also that they demonstrate their understanding of theory and processes through documented credentials and completion of coursework.

For example, Sgt. Wilson has experience with corrosion while serving as an aircraft technical inspector and wants to explore a career as a corrosion technician. She may benefit from completing coursework and achieve credentialing through National Association of Corrosion Engineers (NACE International) and ASM International to achieve a formal record of training and credentials when she seeks civilian employment. Therefore, quality professionally endorsed certificate, certification, licensing and continuing education programs are effective ways to provide evidence of attaining the theoretical knowledge to reinforce military experience.

Opportunities in Materials Science, Technology and Manufacturing for Returning Service Members

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 1 million veterans are either unemployed or still seeking employment. On the other hand, employees continue to lament the lack of skilled workers to draw from the pool. The renaissance of manufacturing and emerging technologies in the U.S. holds promise for service people and their employment outlooks (National Governors Association Academy Policy Report, 2013). However, the key is to match employers with potential employees and communicate a common view about the value of education and credentials for top jobs.

The Skills Translator, available through, allows service people to help match experience with jobs. In addition, a few of the top jobs in manufacturing and materials science and technology that require a skilled workforce are:

  • Heat treat operator
  • Quality engineer
  • Materials technician/engineer
  • Metallographic technician
  • Thermal spray operators/industrial coaters
  • Corrosion technician
  • Metallurgic engineer
  • Fabricator/welder

Professional Associations as Sources for Education, Training, Certificate, Certification and Licensing Programs

Beside colleges and universities, professional organizations offer several resources for returning service people to reinforce their military experience with formal continuing education, certificate, certification and licensing programs:

ASM International (

Along with its four affiliate societies (Thermal Spray Society, Electronic Device Failure Analysis, Heat Treating Society, International Metallographic Society), ASM International provides education and certificate programs in heat treating, failure analysis, corrosion, metallography and thermal spray.

The three-tiered certificate program in metallography provides the student an in-depth course of study in metallographic specimen preparation, microstructural interpretation and analytical techniques. The Heat Treating Certificate Program has been endorsed by the International Heat Treating Society.

In addition, ASM offers one-on-one coaching on metallographic techniques that helps integrate experience from your military career to civilian lab and protocol. For example, ASM International and its affiliates have more than 200 chapters worldwide that offer education, networking and foster fellowship to members that are invaluable to career development. Expos, conferences and annual meetings allow a forum for individuals to share their experiences and integrate them into current industry developments and research.

National Association of Corrosion Engineers (NACE International,

NACE International offers veterans scholarships and provides certifications and education. NACE International, The Corrosion Society, serves nearly 30,000 members in 116 countries and is recognized globally as the premier authority for corrosion control solutions. The organization offers technical training and certification programs, conferences, industry standards, reports, publications, technical journals, government relations activities and more.

Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME,

The SME website states, "SME offers advanced manufacturing certifications as well as a Lean certification similar to the American Society for Quality's Lean Six Sigma and Green/Black Belt certifications. Warrant Officer Advanced Course students at the Army's Engineer School at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, are eligible for the SME Certified Manufacturing Technologist program. The Engineer School credentialing program is currently in development, and the first class of participants will take their SME test in 2013."

American Welding Society (AWS,

Certified welder and certified welding inspector are the credentials offered by AWS. As a result of AWS's partnership with the Army's Ordnance Corps and School, the approximately 540 soldiers and 140 Marines who graduate each year from the Allied Trades Specialist Advanced Individual Training course will earn the basic welder certification upon course completion. The first class to participate in this program began their training on Dec. 1, 2012.

And there's more: Professional associations provide networking and mentoring opportunities through events, chapters and membership.

Research in adult learning and development increasingly emphasizes that education and training don't just happen in the classroom (Merriam, Caffarella & Baumgartner, 2007). It is through those unplanned conversations during a professional association chapter meeting that often galvanize learning and experiences from the military. Military personnel may want to consider proposing a "military" track for conferences to encourage dialogue around the unique issues returning service people face in integrating their experience into civilian situations in labs and workplaces.

In addition, several professional associations lay the foundation for informal mentoring and/or provide formal mentoring programs that could potentially provide a returning service person and opportunity to build strong relationships with civilian employers and professionals. These relationships, if cultivated and supported, can lead to better satisfaction, an easier transition to the civilian workplace and life, and pave the way for potential employment opportunities.

Keeping the Conversation Going Into the Future

While there is much work that needs to be done to elevate the urgency of supporting our service members as they return to civilian life and employment, there have been significant strides forward in policy and services. In addition to the efforts from government task forces, higher education, technical/trade schools, and local and state workforce development hubs, professional associations are dedicated to help build that bridge so that our brave men and women who return from their tours are supported with opportunities to help realize their American dreams.

Norina L. Columbaro is senior manager of education at ASM International.


Department of Labor (June, 2012). Veterans Retraining Assistance Program High Demand Occupations.

Donvan, J. (October 10, 2011 1:00 PM). "Soldiers Say It's Hard To Return To Civilian Life." Talk of the Nation. National Public Radio. Retrieved April 11, 2013 from

Executive Office of the President (February, 2013). "The fast track to civilian employment: Streamlining credentialing and licensing for service members, veterans, and their spouses"

Merriam, S.B., Caffarella, R.S., Baumgartner, L.M. (2007). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide. Third Edition. Jossey-Bass: CA.

National Governors Association Academy Policy Report (January, 2013). "Making" Our Future: What States Are Doing to Encourage Growth in Manufacturing through Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Investment.

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