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Dr. Ricardo Azziz Headshot

A Call to Arms: Academe Must Meet Demands of Downsizing Military

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The coming years will mark a major shift in the role of the higher education community in educating active-duty military personnel and veterans. According to White House predictions, more than one million service members will be discharged or retire from the military by 2016. They'll enter one of the most difficult labor markets our country has seen, many in need of specialized training, job certification, and college degrees to land jobs that will support their families' needs. It is critical that academe be ready for them. The nation's economy demands it.

In fact, economists project that openings for jobs requiring post-secondary education will grow faster than employment overall in the years ahead, which presents both challenges and opportunities for higher education. In the coming years, institutions that specialize in high-growth areas like information technology, green energy, and health care -- all of which require post-secondary education and training -- will have a special responsibility to meet the demands of the military community.

To remain relevant and continue to be seen as engines of economic growth, our institutions will need to provide affordable, high quality, accessible programs focused specifically on the unique needs of active duty personnel, military veterans, and their families.

At Georgia Regents University we are focused on meeting those needs. GRU is located only miles from Fort Gordon, home to 34,000 active duty military and family members; and another 47,000 veterans and family members live in the surrounding area. We have a strong tradition of educating members of the military, and we take seriously our responsibility to make sure our military neighbors succeed in the civilian workforce. Due in part to military downsizing, we have recently begun to revitalize this tradition with a number of new programs designed specifically to address the current economic and societal issues facing our servicemen and women.

For example, we offer credit for skills our veterans have already learned in order to shorten the time it takes and lower the costs of earning a degree; established the Office of Military & Veterans Services, which offers academic and career counseling, mentoring programs, and social opportunities for students; joined the Academic Institutions for Military Students (AIMS) Network through an agreement with the University of Texas, El Paso; and increased financial aid for active duty personnel, military veterans and military spouses, among many other initiatives. As a result, the number of active duty military and veterans attending GRU has risen 60 percent since 2009.

Though we have made military outreach and education a priority across the institution, as a leading academic health center, we are particularly focused on efforts related to healthcare--an industry expected to grow by 33 percent, or 5.7 million new jobs in the next seven years.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs related to health and personal care are among the fastest growing. And since medically related skill sets are in such great demand, they're also highly transferrable, making them even more appealing for military families who may relocate often.

These factors have not been overlooked in Washington, D.C. Earlier this year I was invited to participate in an Advanced Operations Industry Roundtable through the White House Forum on Military Credentialing and Licensing, as part of efforts to develop a national plan of action in targeted industry areas, including healthcare.

Discussions focused on developing strategies to translate military training and experience into credits that could be applied toward nursing and physician assistant certifications and licensure, which is an area of specialization at GRU.

Last fall, the university made significant enhancements to its Physician Assistant Program, improving its procedures for accepting transfer credits for military education, training, and experience, and announcing the "Green to Grad" program, which helps transition military service members into civilian careers as physician assistants with the help of a $834,000 Health Resources and Services Administration federal grant.

GRU has also introduced several professional certificate programs in the health sciences and allied health fields, including medical coding and billing, medical transcription, drug and alcohol counseling, and ophthalmic assistance. These programs have been especially popular among the nearly 500 military spouses who have enrolled the Military Spouse Career Advancement Accounts (MyCAA) Program at GRU in the past four years. This fall, the university will introduce a pharmacy technician certificate, and planning is currently underway for certificate programs in other allied health programs.

But all of this just begins to scratch the surface. More is needed--at GRU and other institutions across the country--if the needs of our nation's soldiers and officers are to be met. We must continue to explore veteran-specific recruitment and retention strategies, mentoring programs, and curricula that meet both the skills and needs of veterans and the demands of our national economy. If we don't, we are missing a critical opportunity to serve the needs of the U.S. economy and honor the service and sacrifice of the members of our military and their families.

Note: This article was first published in Diverse® Issues in Higher Education, Volume 30. No. 16.