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The Transition to Civilian Life of Veterans

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The Report


Every year, more than 5,000 Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) members are released from the military. Leaving the military “family” is not an easy process for many serving men and women. “When you join the military, you go through a cultural indoctrination to become a soldier, sailor, airman or airwoman,” explained Andrea Siew, Director of the Royal Canadian Legion’s Dominion Command Service Bureau. “You are in a military community. You are looked after. It is unique. When you are released … you [no longer] have that military community looking after you.” Transitioning military personnel must now fend for themselves and their families, and some feel a sense of abandonment and alienation.

Over the past fifteen years, more than 140,000 people left the CAF and transitioned to civilian life. Most of them experienced a positive transition process. According to a 2011 study on the transition to civilian life of military personnel, conducted jointly by the Department of National Defence (DND) and Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC), 62% of the CAF veterans who released from the service between 1998 and 2007 reported an easy adjustment to civilian life. The study also showed that 89% of veterans worked after their release from the CAF and about 72% felt that their military experience helped them in their civilian jobs. The majority reported to be satisfied with their work and their levels of satisfaction increased as time went on. Moreover, 73% reported that they were satisfied with their current financial situation. The veterans’ unemployment rate of 8% was said to be comparable to the rest of the Canadian population.

However, while most releasing military personnel experience a positive transition to civilian life, some, unfortunately, do not. As the above-mentioned study revealed, 25% of the people that were released from the CAF in the 1998 to 2007 timeframe reported a difficult adjustment to civilian life. “That 25 per cent highlights that there is an urgent and unmet need, that some programs do not reach all veterans and that there is still more work to be done,” noted Brad White, Dominion Secretary of the Royal Canadian Legion.

Transitioning from military to civilian life can be a particularly challenging experience for members of the armed forces looking to find a new profession and meaningful work on the civilian job market after their release. The military and civilian worlds are very different cultural environments and the transition process can be overwhelming for many service men and women. Transitioning CAF members interested in working in civilian jobs after their release from the military must not only compete with the rest of the Canadian population for job opportunities, they must also adapt to new and very different work and cultural environments.

In the civilian culture, it is generally the responsibility of the individual to manage his or her career. People regularly change jobs or seek new employment opportunities. The situation is somewhat different in the military culture. In the CAF, it is the military that manages one’s career. Most recruits join the CAF at a relatively young age and the military takes care of them and their families throughout their career in uniform. Although some choose to leave the CAF after a few years of service, most pursue longer military careers, some of which span over several decades. For many, serving in the CAF has been the only job they have ever held.

As a result, many releasing CAF members have little or no experience of civilian job application processes, how to develop résumés, how to prepare for job interviews, or how to sell the numerous skills and trades they’ve learned in the military to civilian employers. At the same time, many civilians employers lack understanding of the military and do not fully grasp the potential value that veterans can bring to their organizations.

Veterans seeking job opportunities in civilian society must also sometimes cope with lower paying jobs. Although the proportion of low-income individuals is substantially less among veterans than in the general population, a joint study conducted by DND, VAC and Statistics Canada reported in 2011 that veterans’ incomes drop an average of 10% during the first three years following their release from military service. Moreover, declines in income tend to differ considerably between different groups of veterans. Women veterans, for example, experience a 30% decline, veterans discharged for medical reasons a 29% decline, and veterans who served from 10 to 19 years a 21% decline. The study also reported that over one-third of veterans receive employment insurance at least once post-release. This information is significant, for as Philip Ralph, Secretary and Program Director of Wounded Warrior, explained, “financial stability is a very important aspect of a veteran’s ability or inability to properly transition to civilian life.”

That being said, seeking a post-service civilian career can become a particularly daunting task for transitioning military personnel, and perhaps even more so for those who have been injured in the service of their country, who must now adapt to this new work environment with various handicaps.

The transition process can be particularly difficult for ill and injured individuals. The military careers of these veterans have been cut short because of their medical conditions and they must now adapt to civilian life with various physical disabilities and/or mental health issues. Several experts have testified before the Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs of the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence (referred hereinafter as the “Subcommittee”) about the challenges and difficulties experienced by ill and injured military personnel after they transition to civilian life, particularly those with Operational Stress Injures (OSI) such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Prospect Human Services, for example, reported that medically released military personnel tend to face higher unemployment rates than their non-medically releasing peers, experience significant declines in income, and are often unable to maintain the standard of living they desire. They also require special “employment placement and retention solutions that address [their] physical and mental health limitations.” The fact that the CAF releases on average approximately 1,000 people for medical reasons in any given year, and that, between 1999 and 2011, more than 13,420 CAF members were released for medical reasons, indicates the magnitude of this issue. And the statistics do not include people released for non-medical reasons over that period who have subsequently developed physical and mental health problems associated with their military service.

CAF reservists also face difficulties with their transition. “The often unspoken reality is that the members of the primary reserve … return home with little support that is requisite to managing their transition to civilian life,” explained Philip Ralph of Wounded Warriors. They often return to a civilian society that is “ill-equipped to appreciate, recognize or deal with their needs” and “should they seek access to the programs that are already in place, they often feel abandoned due to the realities of time and space coupled with the pressures of trying to provide for themselves and their families.” Moreover, as Mr. Ralph noted, “members of the primary reserve face the real risk of losing their civilian jobs due to the injuries relating from their service.”

In order to assist transitioning military personnel, DND and VAC have set up various transition programs. Many of them were introduced with the enactment of the New Veterans Charter in 2006. The purpose of these programs is to facilitate the return to civilian life of CAF members, and this includes helping them find meaningful post-service civilian jobs. The programs offer a range of services, from transition seminars and workshops to career counselling, vocational training and job search assistance. In addition, a number of non-government initiatives have been launched by community and private sector organizations to further assist transitioning military personnel with their search for jobs on the civilian market and to help connect them with potential civilian employers. And several private sector industries and companies have openly expressed an interest in hiring former members of the military and veterans. In sum, a growing number of resources are now available to assist releasing members of the CAF with their transition to the civilian workforce, and the situation is constantly improving.

The purpose of the study is to look at initiatives taken by the public and private sectors to promote the meaningful employment of releasing CAF members and veterans during and after their transition to civilian life. The Subcommittee began the study in October 2011. It held 17 meetings on the topic and heard testimony from 44 different witnesses, including representatives of the CAF, various federal government departments and agencies, particularly DND and VAC, and a number of community and private sector organizations, such as the British Columbia Institute of Technology, the Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists, the Canada Company, the Canadian Corps of Commissionaires, the Canadian National (CN) and Canadian Pacific (CP) Railways, Helmets to Hardhats Canada, Home Depot Canada, Irving Shipbuilding, Prospect Human Services, the Royal Canadian Legion, Wounded Warriors, and several others.

The Subcommittee would like to thank all witnesses for their contribution to this study. It is hoped that this report reflects, as faithfully as possible, the views they have expressed on the subject of transition from military to civilian life.

The report discusses some of the challenges and issues identified by witnesses and offers suggestions as to possible ways of improving the transition to civilian life process. It is subdivided into six sections. The first looks at the need for research. The second and third sections provide options to strengthen DND and VAC transition programs and services. The fourth section focuses more specifically on ways to improve the transition of ill and injured military personnel to civilian life. The fifth section looks at ways of reinforcing the bridge between the military and the private sector. The final section of the report provides options to enhance private sector employment opportunities for veterans.

In addition, the report is composed of two Annexes, which provide a detailed overview of transition programs and services offered by federal government departments, non-governmental organizations and the private sector, bringing together witness testimony and information available on the websites and in documents of these organizations. Annex 1 provides a list of some of the key transition to civilian life programs and services available to transitioning military personnel and veterans. Annex 2 provides a more detailed overview of the above-mentioned transition to civilian life programs and services. Annex 2 is subdivided into four main sections. The first provides an overview of the transition to civilian life programs offered by DND to military personnel while they are still serving within the CAF. The second section provides information on the transition programs offered by VAC to veterans after their release from the CAF. The third section takes a look at the transition programs and services provided by non-government organizations. The final section looks at the various private sector employment opportunities for transitioning military personnel and veterans.

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A Need for Research

Recommendation 1

That the Life After Service Studies (LASS) joint programs of research led by DND and VAC continue its work on the transition to civilian life of military personnel, and that a LASS study on veterans’ employment post-release be initiated in the near future.

Strengthening DND Transition Programs and Services

Recommendation 2

That the CAF and DND, taking into consideration the results of ongoing research on transition issues, regularly review and upgrade their transition programs in order to continually enhance services provided to transitioning military personnel.

Recommendation 3

That the CAF and DND make the VAC transition interview mandatory for all releasing military personnel.

Recommendation 4

That DND and VAC reach out to federal departments and agencies and promote the hiring of transitioning CAF members and veterans into their public service workforces.

Strengthening VAC Transition Programs and Services

Recommendation 5

That Veterans Affairs Canada conducts a review to evaluate the performance of its Career Transition Service Program and its Vocational Rehabilitation Program at least every three years and report to both chambers of Parliament on its findings.

Improving the Transition of Ill and Injured Military Personnel to Civilian Life

Recommendation 6

That DND and VAC implement all fifteen recommendations made by the Auditor General of Canada in his October 2012 report on the transition of ill and injured military personnel to civilian life as soon as possible.

Recommendation 7

That DND and VAC develop partnerships with civilian employers with the goal of developing more direct employment placement and retention solutions to ensure meaningful job opportunities for ill and injured transitioning CAF members and veterans.

Private Sector and Other Non-Governmental Transition Initiatives

Recommendation 8

That DND and VAC coordinate public sector, private sector and non-governmental efforts to assist transitioning military personnel and veterans. As top priorities in this regard, the Subcommittee additionally recommends:

  • That DND support the expansion of the Veterans Transition Program nationally, and ensure that serving CAF members affected by PTSD have access to the program;
  • That Veterans Affairs Canada support the expansion of the Royal Canadian Legion and BCIT’s Legion Military Skills Conversion Program nationally; and
  • That DND and VAC assist Prospect Human Services in expanding the Forces@WORK program nationally and provide appropriate funding to achieve that end.

Enhancing Private Sector Employment Opportunities for Veterans

Recommendation 9

That the Canadian government recognises renewing Commissionaires’ right of first refusal on federal government guard contracts and that it also considers ways of encouraging the employment of veterans on federal government contracts with other security companies.

Recommendation 10

That the Government of Canada and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, while recognizing the many differences between the Canadian and American veteran support systems, explore the possibility of establishing a program similar to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Hiring Our Heroes initiative in Canada to help connect transitioning CAF members and veterans with employers in communities across Canada.

Recommendation 11

That DND and VAC increase their outreach efforts with the private sector and encourage civilian employers to hire transitioning military personnel and veterans. As top priorities in this regard, the Subcommittee additionally recommends:

  • That an official and centralized transition to civilian life website jointly operated by DND and VAC be created to coordinate public and private sector transition programs and services and help connect transitioning military personnel and veterans with civilian employers.
  • That DND take a lead role in providing civilian employers with a better understanding of military-civilian job equivalencies.
  • That DND and VAC transition programs enhance efforts to assist transitioning military personnel and veterans promote their military experiences, training, trades and skills to the civilian marketplace.
Recommendation 12

That DND and VAC develop and jointly manage an awards system similar to that of the CFLC, which would annually recognize private sector organizations that hire transitioning military personnel and veterans.

Recommendation 13

That the CFLC and DND consider expanding the ExecuTrek program in coming years and use it as an outreach tool to promote public and private sector hiring of transitioning military personnel and veterans.

Recommendation 14

That DND and VAC sponsor the organization of military career fairs to help employers and veterans connect with one another.

Contact information

General Information:
613-990-0088 or 1-800-267-7362


Mailing Address:
Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs
The Senate of Canada
Ottawa, Ontario
Canada, K1A 0A4