Driving Innovation and Impact with IDEaS: Digitizing Canada’s Veteran Transition Centres

As a former Infantry Platoon Commander in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), I have experienced firsthand the challenges faced by those leaving service, the emotional toll of this experience and the transformative in- fluence of meaningful careers in reshaping the trajectory of veterans’ lives.

Being a leader in the military mirrors the role of a captain steering a ship through uncharted waters. Entrusted with guiding a team through unforeseen challenges and obstacles, this role demands a clear vision, strategic decision-making, and adaptability to ensure the collective safety and success of the entire crew. The effectiveness of a platoon commander, much like a ship’s captain, is defined by the ability to navigate with confidence through unfamiliar territory, foster trust and teamwork, and build resilience.

It must come as no surprise, even to those who haven’t served, that leaving this environment to work in a typical office role or workshop requires a significant adjustment.

Navigating the transition services landscape

Fortunately, nowadays in Canada, many services exist to guide military leavers through the transition. The Joint Personnel Support Unit (JPSU), now the Canadian Armed Forces Transition Group (CAF TG) emerged during the height of the War in Afghanistan, designed to pro- vide comprehensive support to ill and injured military personnel, as well as their families. Functioning as central coordination points, Transition Centre’s (TCs) streamlined various resources and services for military members undergoing medical treatment or rehabilitation.

TCs have since expanded to provide a broader range of support services, including vocational rehabilitation, with an at- tempt to emphasize a holistic approach to transition and recovery to all releasing CAF veterans and their spouses. Addition- ally, TCs engage in collaborative efforts, working closely with internal and external defence organizations – all vital com- ponents in the comprehensive support framework. However, despite these valuable efforts, significant gaps still exist when it comes to supporting veterans in finding meaningful, sustainable employment opportunities beyond military service.

A front row seat to the struggle

In 2016, I served as a Platoon Commander at TC Borden, Canada’s third-largest transition centre, where I directly witnessed the stark reality that many veterans faced upon completing their service – a lack of employment opportunities rooted in the challenge of translating skills and qualifications to civilian settings. This reality struck a chord when I encountered a familiar scene: a veteran facing release, holding his wife’s hand, his eyes reflecting a profound desire to continue serving but knowing being medically released from the military was his only option.

In my role, I was entrusted with meticulously overseeing the release of personnel in my transition unit and fulfilled my administrative duties diligently. How- ever, the inability to guide them towards post-service employment left me with a palpable sense of unfulfillment. I realized effectively addressing post-service challenges would require not only individual resilience but also a collective commitment to creating clear pathways for veterans to thrive in their civilian careers.

One evening in the Officer’s Mess, a few drinks and half a pack of cigarettes be- came a poignant conduit for deep reflection. During this moment, I resolved to do everything I could to proactively alter the narrative for veterans post-service. Yet, the commencement of this journey was deferred by a few years. In the interim, I acquainted myself with the bureaucratic intricacies of Ottawa as a staff officer, progressed in my career as a Company 2IC within my regiment, and embarked on a deployment to the arid dunes of Sinai, Egypt as an Operation Officer with the Liaison Staff of the Multinational Forces and Observers. It was only after this sequence of impactful events that I returned to the Canadian Armed Forces Transition Group and was introduced to WithYouWithMe (WYWM).

WithYouWithMe: A catalyst for change

With a determined spirit, I joined forces with WithYouWithMe, embarking on a mission to address the unemployment crisis among veterans in Canada – and around the world. Since day one, I have worked tirelessly to bridge the gap be- tween military service and civilian employment. The launch of WithYouWithMe in Canada posed a series of formidable challenges that demanded creative solutions and a resilient spirit. Venturing into the business world for the first time, I found myself navigating unfamiliar terrain and rapidly acquiring the skills essential for success, from strategic planning to re- source management.

Introducing a new product and recruitment method in the Canadian market, especially when targeting veterans, demanded innovative strategies to establish WithYouWithMe as a trusted and valuable resource in the veteran employment landscape.

Transforming lives, one veteran at a time

Despite the challenges, we persevered, and to date, WithYouWithMe has positively impacted the lives of hundreds of Canadian veterans. By providing free training and access to employment opportunities, we have facilitated the transition of over 120 veterans into fulfilling tech careers within the Canadian Federal Government.

WithYouWithMe’s impact on the lives of individual veterans is exemplified through the inspiring success stories that underscore the transformative power of the program. Veterans who embraced data analytics, cybersecurity, and automation pathways witnessed remarkable ca- reer shifts, finding not just employment but purposeful roles within these dynamic fields.

The success of WithYouWithMe is further solidified through strategic collaborations with government partners, including DND, CAF, RCMP, GAC, ESDC, CRA, and FINTRAC. These partnerships have not only expanded the reach of our pro- grams but have also enhanced the effectiveness of training initiatives.

By helping veterans build the skills sought after by government agencies and utilizing a collaborative approach, WithY- ouWithMe has become a driving force in reshaping the professional trajectories of those who have served in the CAF.

The IDEaS Challenge: A unique opportunity for profound impact

Within the landscape of military-to-civilian transition, the CAF recognizes the need for innovative solutions to facilitate a seamless and supportive experience for current serving members, veterans and their families. Acknowledging the challenges posed by the vast amount of information and numerous third-party organizations involved in the transition process, the Department of National Defence (DND) and the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) initiated an in- novation challenge titled ‘Navigating Your Next Chapter – The Transition Back to Civilian Life’. Under the umbrella of Innovation for Defence Excellence and Security (IDEaS), this challenge seeks to leverage technological innovation to virtualize the transition experience.

The competition aims to foster meaningful discussions regarding ongoing ef- forts and potential improvements in sup- porting veterans’ transition to civilian life. It prompts our collective responsibility to continue enhancing programs, services, and collaborations that empower veterans to seamlessly reintegrate into civilian careers using the latest technological advancements available.

Inspired by the challenge posed, WithYouWithMe sought to work alongside the CAF and VAC as they digitize the traditional Transition Center concept and facilitate faster and easier information sharing on support services between departments, units and individuals, and ultimately, to improve employment and education out- comes for military veterans.

The project sought to achieve three key outcomes:

  1. Help CAF members, veterans and their families access and process the vast volume of information related to their transition.
  2. Facilitate information sharing between CAF members, veterans and their families, and the various organizations in- volved in the transition.
  3. Provide DND/CAF and VAC with the ability to assess the value of various ser- vices provided by third-party organizations.

Additionally, the transition centre would provide veterans with free psychometric and aptitude testing to match their existing skills and personality type to careers in the technology sector. Veterans would subsequently be offered free training through WithYouWithMe’s Potential platform to develop sought-after digital skills in areas like cyber security, software development and data analytics.

The digital transition center

Three years on, the digital transition centre has become a go-to resource for Canadian veterans and their families, simplifying ser- vices access, streamlining the exchange of information between stakeholders and enabling the assessment of third-party services to optimize support for CAF members. And alongside the University of British Columbia, WithYouWithMe was named as a finalist in the IDEaS Challenge, standing out among 30 submissions.

The transformative journey undertaken by WithYouWithMe as the innovation challenge continues reflects a firm commitment to overcoming challenges and championing the cause of veterans’ successful integration into civilian workplaces through innovative and impactful solutions. It’s a project I’m incredibly proud to be a part of.

If we’re successful in the IDEaS Challenge, WithYouWithMe will take this in- valuable opportunity, with the help of our partners at CAF and VAC, to continue to expand the capability of the digital transition centre and build a lasting solution that will redefine the future for those who have served.

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