Nick’s decision to go back to education led to him working in national security policy and ultimately his role leading the research and analytics efforts at the IVMF. Nick never thought he would pursue a Ph.D., but his positive experiences with professors and mentors led him to dive in. In this episode, we talk about the guilt Veterans face when they leave the military while their colleagues continue to serve. We talk about the 25k people that the IVMF helps each year, and how important it is for Veterans to be a better-informed consumers. We also talk about how the biggest challenge Veterans face - beyond employment - is navigating benefits and services.
Nick Armstrong is the Senior Director for Research and Evaluation at the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) at Syracuse University. He started out at West Point, after which he served in the U.S. Army for 8 years as a field artillery officer, with time in Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. After his military service, he worked as a Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism, prior to joining Syracuse University. Nick earned a Ph.D. and M.P.A. from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, both focused on public management and international security.
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IVMF - Syracuse University’s Institute of Veterans and Military Families
Transcript & Time Stamps:
Joining me today from Syracuse, NY is Nick Armstrong. Nick Armstrong is the Senior Director for Research and Evaluation at the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) at Syracuse University.
He started out at West Point, after which he served in the U.S. Army for 8 years as a field artillery officer, with time in Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. After his military service, he worked as a Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism, prior to joining Syracuse University. Nick earned a Ph.D. and M.P.A. from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, both focused on public management and international security.
What was the first job search like for you as you left the military?
I came off active duty in 2007. I had done three tours of duty at that point - Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. I had gotten a degree in engineering at West Point and as I was getting out I did some interviews at a few engineering firms. It didn’t feel quite right though. There was part of me that still wanted to serve. But my family needed a slow down.
Those engineering jobs didn’t quite fit so I started thinking about graduate school. Through some connections, I heard about the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. I visited and recognized that it offered great programs in public affairs and administration. So I started Syracuse’s MPA program about four months after separating. While there, I decided to focus my work in national security policy. There was a research center called the Institute for National Security and Terrorism and I was fortunate enough to land a research assistantship while pursuing my studies at Syracuse. I was able connect with the founder, Bill Banks. At that time, the Institute received a large financial gift to expand their programs and they offered me a research fellowship after I graduated. During that fellowship, I decided to keep going to school to pursue my Ph. D. I was able to fund my Ph. D. through my GI Bill. Initially, I didn’t think a Ph. D. was in the cards for me but I really found myself in a great place at Syracuse University. The school has a very long history of supporting veterans.
I really love that were able to find your purpose after the military.
I completely agree. I realized that there are many ways to serve your country - not just being in the military. There were times after I got out that I felt guilty because my friends were still serving. It took time for me to come to the realization that I could continue to serve but in a different way.
What lead to to the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse?
While I was pursuing my Ph. D. and working at the National Security Institute, my current boss Mike Haynie created a boot camp for veterans focused on small business ownership. Eventually that program became a university consortium amongst 10 universities. That started a domino effect of other programs for veterans.
Mike saw an opportunity to create an entire institute that would focus on veterans and military families. That’s how the IVMF was born. Prior to that, universities really didn’t have programs that were focused on programming for members of the military community. As I was finishing up my Ph. D., the IVMF was being stood up. I joined the team when I finished my Ph. D. in 2015. I help build out and grow the insight arm of the institute.
At that time we were launching a new career training program for veterans. We were also helping communities better serve veterans. When I joined the team, we started doing research projects to determine the best ways to serve veterans. We study veteran serving nonprofits and see what they do that is successful or not successful. We also continue to re-shape our programming for veterans to make sure the programs are best serving the needs veterans have.
Today, almost 25,000 members of the military community go through our programs each year. Through our research, we’ve been able to make strategic decisions about where to put our focus and money to best impact the military community.
The company SAS has also been extremely helpful in providing us pro bono services that have built up our capacity to collect and analyze data.
What are some things you’re working on right now?
The annual Department of Labor report is about to be released and we know that the veteran unemployment number will be low. But we also know that veterans still face employment challenges. We did a survey with Google in 2015 trying to get an understanding about what veterans’ challenges are in pursuing higher education. The top barrier people faced was navigating benefits. There are thousands of veteran focused non-profit organizations out there. That can be overwhelming because veterans often don’t know who to turn to with what issue.
When I got out in 2007, TAPS wasn’t mandatory. I went to a couple briefings but didn't’ really take them very seriously. TAPS is mandatory know and many improvements have been made. I would encourage folks to do as much preparation as possible before separating. If you’re married, include your spouse in those conversations.
Right now we’re working with various companies to train veterans in very specific skills that companies are looking for. This is particularly important in to the technology and human resources sectors. Through these programs, we’re able to get people certified while they’re still in the service which will make their transition so much smoother.
In 2011 or 2012, veteran unemployment was at a high. Since then we’ve seen a real shift in the conversation about employing veterans. Back then we were in crisis mode. Veteran unemployment was four times the national average. But the corporate sector really responded and many companies worked to hire more veterans and start veteran employment programs.
Sometimes veterans have the idea that they have to do exactly what they did in the military. But more than 50% of veterans want to do something else when they get out of the military. And that is completely possible. If you’re willing to go through the training and learning process, any industry is available to you.
The workforce is changing dramatically. So it goes two ways - veterans need to recognize where they would be a good fit and how they can get trained in areas that will be in demand. At the same time, we also want to help companies become better at recruiting and retaining veteran talent.
How can veterans learn more about IVMF?
The best thing to do is go to our website. Our program Onward to Opportunity is offered to both military members and spouses. We also offer a whole suite of entrepreneurship programs are focused on helping veteran business owners. We’re also part of a program called America Serves which is a resource center that details various community services and organizations available to veterans.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with listeners?
Another great organization I’d like to mention is Team Red White and Blue. I helped stand a chapter up here in Syracuse. That organization has been important to me in giving me a sense of purpose.
I encourage people to reach out to me or to anyone at IVMF with questions. We’re here to help.