"Terrified" is the word a high-ranking officer and a military veteran used to describe how many people feel about the prospect of leaving the Canadian Armed Forces for civilian life.
"After 36 years of service it was terrifying stepping out of a uniform and into civilian service," Dave Giannou told a legislature committee Tuesday.
The Atlantic Canada representative for the non-profit group Helmets to Hardhats Canada tries to make that transition less scary by offering on-the-job placements and further training in order for the ex-soldiers, sailors and air staff to get their Red Seal certifications in the construction trades.
"The fact that members were terrified upon release is the story I hear almost daily when I speak to veterans," said Lt.-Col. Ross Bonnell, commanding officer of the Canadian Armed Forces Transition Unit for Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.
The unit, set up in 2018, was created to make the transition as smooth as possible for those who no longer want to remain in the military.
According to figures supplied by Bonnell, a growing number of service people in Nova Scotia are choosing to leave the military rather than re-enlist.
"In Nova Scotia in 2020, 506 members released," Bonnell told the veterans affairs committee. "This figure grew to 674 members in 2021. Already in 2022, 754 members have released in this province, largely from the bases in Greenwood and Halifax."
As a result, the unit he commands has doubled in size, from 42 staff to more than 100 since he assumed control last April. It has offices in St. John's and Gander, N.L., as well as Halifax and Greenwood, N.S.
Colleges sign agreements
The two men were joined by Don Bureaux, president of the Nova Scotia Community College, and Brad Smith of the Mainland Nova Scotia Building Trades in urging the province to do more to make it easier for CAF personnel to find new careers, particularly in the trades.
To that end, last week NSCC signed agreements with colleges near armed forces bases in other provinces.
Those deals with Portage College in Alberta, which has a campus in Cold Lake, Alta., and Loyalist College in Belleville, Ont., near CFB Trenton, will allow for an easier transfer of credits and a sharing of curricula. That way, students taking courses at one college can carry over those credits if they decide to move, retire or are transferred from one province to another.
"The future of education, the future of learning, is just that, portability," Bureaux told CBC News after the meeting. "Students vote with their feet, and they want to be able to be flexible, nimble and responsive in terms of how they learn.
"It's incumbent upon us as a post-secondary system to allow that to happen."
'Not an easy transition'
Mainland Nova Scotia Building Trades, a funding partner with Helmets to Hardhats, also wants to make life easier for vets who still want to work after their service.
"It's not an easy transition," said Smith. "These people have had a whole career, you know, to face a career transition, and say, 'What do you mean I have to be a first-year apprentice at $20 an hour when I'm 40 years of age and I've got a house, mortgage and kids?'"
Smith's organization tries to fast-track the skills upgrade process so that military carpenters or plumbers, for example, can have their experience recognized and get higher paying jobs on construction sites.
He will travel to Ottawa next week to discuss ways to better harmonize trade certification from province to province — another barrier for those leaving the military, especially those who want to relocate to a different part of the country.
Smith said only nine of 60 skilled trades have an easy transition between military life and civilian work and every province has a different set of requirements in order to be fully certified in a trade. Making those apprenticeship requirements uniform from coast to coast would help, he said.
"That work is ongoing."
Some types of military training mesh well with civilian trades, according to Giannou, but others do not.
"A lot of our trades, there's not a civilian equivalent," he said. "Combat arms, infantry, artillery, tank drivers, there's not a lot of call for that in the civilian world."
Regardless of the trade, Giannou says most vets leave the Forces with highly sought-after employee qualities.
"I hear from employers on a regular basis: 'We love getting vets. We love getting vets because they know how to work, they show up on time and they know how to put their boots on.'
"I know there's a huge absenteeism rate in various workforces. Our military people show up on time."
Nova Scotia is home to Canada's East Coast fleet at CFB Halifax and has bases in Greenwood and Shearwater. Together they account for about 40 per cent of the country's military installations.
Nationally, 8,000 to 10,000 people leave the Canadian Armed Forces every year.
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