BEDFORD, MASS. — LIKE many of his counterparts in the civilian work force, Master Sgt. Robert Novak, USAF, knew his employer was laying people off, thousands of them. But he admits that, when he found out that Uncle Sam was letting him go next July, he avoided thinking about it. That is, until his daughter, home from college for Christmas, asked him a very direct question.
"She wanted to know, 'where do I come home to?' at the end of the spring semester," he says. "I couldn't tell her."
Not only will Sergeant Novak lose his military job, but after 20 years of living only on military bases, he has to find a house for himself, his wife, and their seven children.
Over the next four years, the United States Department of Defense will trim its forces ("transition out" in Pentagon-speak) by at least 500,000 men and women. The largest demobilization of the armed forces since World War II, the drawdown of troops reflects the military realities of a post-cold-war world.
The US Departments of Defense and Labor, and the Veterans Administration, are working jointly to make the forced transition from military to civilian life go as smoothly as possible. They have established job-referral programs and beefed up out-placement programs.
"From the outset our focus has been to help, not only individual military personnel but their families as well, says Lt. Col. Harry Forbes, Air Force Military Personnel Center Chief of Transition Programs. The military also is guaranteeing out-placement assistance to spouses, he says.
Military personnel can be just as shaken as civilians by summary ejections from their jobs. And when the individual marching into a new life sets out into a recession-racked economy, the job hunt can be daunting. But unlike most civilians, military personnel have the distinct advantage of working for an employer with the funds to provide a wide range of services for departing employees. Each military base has a Family Service Center. Military personnel and their spouses can take formal programs (called T ransition Assistance Programs, or TAPS) six months prior to discharge to help them get started on the next stage of their lives, says Sandra Albano, a family counselor at Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachusetts.
"One of the most important things we needed to learn was a new language. We had to learn to translate our military experiences in a way that a civilian employer would undertand," says Chief Master Sgt. Gary Mazingo, who is leaving after 26 years (a normal retirement) in the Air Force.
Sergeant Mazingo is the first to admit his change of status will be relatively easy. With a pension, and years of experience in human development, he welcomes the opportunity to start a new career. This may not be the case for a young marine with only combat training who is forced to leave after a single tour of duty, he says.
"We know how to follow orders, to show up on time, to move to and start new jobs both at home and overseas," says Air Force Capt. Mike Huddleston, who is being forced out after 10 years. At a time when United States companies are trying to be more competitive overseas, military personnel, especially officers, have had numerous experiences working with citizens from other countries' cultures, he says.
One advantage a veteran has is that Uncle Sam will pick up the moving tab to anywhere in the US. This is no small consideration to an employer in Seattle looking at a qualified candidate from Massachusetts, says Ms. Albano.
Last December, the Pentagon set up a data-base available at some 350 bases, worldwide, to link employers with exiting military personnel. Called DORS (Defense Outplacement Referral Service), it is a mini-resume registry and referral system. It provides employers with access to defense personnel and their spouses who are seeking civilian employment.
Upon an employer's touch-tone telephone request, the data base matches candidates with job openings. The mini-resume on file is sent to a prospective employer, who can access DORS via a 1-900 telephone number ($5 for the first minute, $1 per minute thereafter) to receive up to 25 mini-resumes the same business day, or up to 100 mini-resumes by mail the next business day.
So far, DORS has exceded the military's expectations. Trucking firms, health-care companies, corrections officials, and county sheriffs are among employers ready to hire former military people.
This week, employers will be able to dial an 800 number and place a help-wanted ad. Jobs will be posted on an electronic bulletin board accessible on all US military bases around the world.