In today’s tough and competitive job market, it can be challenging for any adult to land a decent job. Though education can definitely improve outcomes, sometimes it’s not just about the degree. Experience can also play a major role in helping people find jobs. Yet in some cases, experience can work against you. Just ask one of the many college-educated military veterans who serve their country only to return to find a job market that doesn’t want anything to do with them.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for female veterans was 8.8% in January, compared to 7.5% for men and 7.7% for female civilians. And with an unemployment rate of about 20%, members of the National Guard and Reserve are faring far worse in the job market.
The Veteran’s Plight in the Job Search
Bruce Hurwitz created Hurwitz Strategic Staffing to promote the hiring of veterans.
“Twenty percent of jobs in the military have no civilian counterpart,” he said. “A truck driver is a truck driver, a warehouse manager is a warehouse manager, and a software developer is a software developer. But a sniper…”
Army veteran John Lee Dumas said he had zero anxieties about finding a job after graduating college and had been told that his military experience would give him a leg up on other candidates. But things didn’t turn out that way.
“I quickly found out that I was lumped together with recent college grads for entry-level positions, and that an employee that had two years experience at a job in a similar industry was considered way more qualified than I was, despite my four years as an officer in the army,” Dumas said.
When Dumas did find work, he said it was difficult to acclimate to the civilian office environment.
“I often found that my peers and above had a hard time dealing with my direct approach and attitude about tackling problems head on, often asking for forgiveness rather than permission,” he said.
Dumas found entrepreneurship was a much better fit for him, and he now uses the skills he acquired in the military to run Entrepreneur on Fire.
Statistics suggest that employers do want to hire veterans. According to a Career Builder survey, 65% of employers said they would be more likely to hire a veteran over another equally qualified candidate, while 29% of employers say they are actively recruiting veterans to work for their organizations.
So what’s the problem?
One issue is that veterans are too modest when it comes to stating their accomplishments in the military.
“For some reason, I’ve had veterans not tell me about their awards and honors, but it should all be listed – from commanders’ coins to medals of honor,” Hurwitz said.
Navy veteran Tim Graves, who has a career in workforce development helping companies understand the benefits of hiring skilled and experienced military veterans, agreed.
“[Employers] often complain that they can’t identify veterans because it is never on their resumes,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how long ago you served, you need to highlight that service.”
The Career Builder survey found that 30% of employers said it’s not always obvious to tell whether a candidate is a veteran.
“Military veterans are not taught how to self-promote,” said Lida Citroen, who has a resource on her website specifically devoted to help veterans transition to civilian jobs. “To be successful in service, it is important to put troop and mission ahead of self. Unfortunately, when veterans try to enter the civilian marketplace, they quickly realize they don’t know how to sell themselves to potential employers.”
PTSD and Deployments: Disclose or Not?
Some employers can also be hesitant to hire veterans with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“As for PTSD, there is concern. But there is a simple answer. ‘I have PTSD. I take medication and once a week I meet with a therapist. If I am having difficulty, I know who to call. But I want to say something,'” Hurwitz said.
Graves said that PTSD shouldn’t be a factor in hiring, but it is.
“Anyone who has been in a traumatic situation suffers from post-traumatic stress, but not all of them experience the syndrome of PTSD,” Graves said. “People with PTSD are also protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, so if you are systematically screening out veterans from your process because of this bias, you will eventually have to explain your underutilization of veterans to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs.”
Additionally, military reservists who could possibly be deployed may be hesitant to divulge that information to employers.
“They are protected under the law. I tell reservists not to bring it up, but if the employer asks, be honest about employment cycles,” Graves said. “They are protected under Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act.”
Ted Daywalt, president of VetJobs, said he counsels those in the National Guard and Reserve to leave their military experience off the resume completely, due to a bias against hiring of NG&R.
The Trouble with Translation
Nearly every career expert will agree that translating military skills to the civilian workplace is one of the most difficult things to do for veterans on the job hunt.
“When you get out of the military, you need to know that things will be different,” said Army veteran Holly Mosack, director of military recruiting for Advanced Technology Services. “You have to realize that only one percent of the country has served in the military, so people can’t relate to your experiences.”
Hurwitz said vets should be more general in describing duties and veer away from graphic details.
“If you were responsible for a warehouse, you shouldn’t write that you were responsible for storage and distribution of bullets, mines, and guns because some civilian employers may become nervous,” he said. “All the civilian employer needs to know is that the veteran had to track 140 different units, each in quantities between 1,000 and 500,000, and successfully made 750 deliveries a day. A sniper can’t write ‘I killed the enemy without harming the civilians who were surrounding them.’ The sniper should instead write, ‘Focused and great under stress.'”
Steve Padhi, currently an active duty lieutenant commander in the Navy Civil Engineer Corps, had a four-year break from service in which he held jobs as a high school teacher and an engineer-diver.
“Even though I had five years of active duty experience after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy with a B.S. in Ocean Engineering, both the education and the engineering industries viewed me as entry-level, plus a couple steps for maturity beyond the average recent college grad,” Padhi said. “It was understandable in light of the highly technical nature of the job, which didn’t exactly match what I had done in the military. The discouraging part was that I only realized what those active duty years really meant to me when taking stock of my position relative to the other entry level peers. I didn’t see myself the same as them in terms of managerial potential, but that is the nature of business in a technical field.”
A Sense of Entitlement
Interestingly enough, Graves, a Navy veteran, said that the largest obstacle for finding a job is often the veterans themselves.
“They often have the attitude that they are owed a job, and are under the impression that their skill set is more valuable than their civilian counterparts,” Graves said. “They have to understand that you can’t take a CEO of an organization, put stars on their shoulder, and expect them to be a successful general. Just like they can’t take their rank and walk in to the top of the chain of command in a civilian organization.”
Identifying and Leveraging Advantages
Dani Ticktin Koplik, founder of dtkResources, believes that in veterans’ outcomes in the job market to change, they should strive to understand the context and needs of the civilian workplace.
“The reality of the civilian workplace – what it looks like, what it values, how it operates – is quite different from the military reality,” Koplik said. “Very simply, if vets want to secure employment, build a career, and succeed in the civilian sector, they have to accept what today’s business reality looks like. Business now is highly relational, collaborative, and interdependent which means that employers also look for candidates who ‘fit’ into their corporate culture, who understand and embody their corporate mission and buy into their corporate values.”
Koplik said this is often foreign to vets who succeeded in a military culture based on merit, in which expectations for performance are well-articulated, clear, and consistent.
“In the civilian workplace, competence is assumed and progression through the ranks is often a function of personal relationships, of visibility, and of the softer skills such as displaying emotional intelligence, being able to communicate and build rapport, and establishing trust.”
Citroen said she encourages veterans to become active on LinkedIn and other networks, both in person and online.
“They should join community groups and business networks,” she said. “There are great jobs that are not advertised, and the traditional ‘say and spray’ model of shooting out resumes is not as powerful at helping recruiters find you.”
Daywalt stressed that there are more than 200 skill sets used in the military needed by civilian employers, with leadership being the main skill.
He also said it’s important for veterans to avoid using military jargon, citing O*NET Online as a good resource to help veterans convert their military skill sets into civilian terminology.
Sara Sutton Fell, founder of FlexJobs, suggested that veterans market their supervisory experience to employers.
“Military personnel have extensive supervisory experience as they move up in rank. Not only do they perform as a supervisor and manager, often for numerous projects, programs, or units, but also as a mentor and professional development instructor,” she said.
Fell also stressed the importance of certifications obtained while in the military.
“It is all dependent on the career field of the member, but many gain extensive professional certifications that can translate into the civilian sector. Some such certifications are found in areas such as legal, hazardous materials, healthcare, engineering, transportation, accounting/finance, and information security.”
Recent efforts by the National Guard have already proven effective in putting Minnesota’s military veterans in civilian jobs, as reported by Minnesota Public Radio. Acting proactively, a team of military officials accompanied government, education and business leaders to Kuwait where they spent a week on a military base and led troops through a rigorous set of exercises designed to help prepare them to job hunt. The exercises included sessions on resume writing and career planning and mock interviews. Of the more than 500 service members who returned from the Middle East without civilian jobs, guard officials said only 35 are still looking for work.
Career Resources for Veterans
There are numerous resources available to military veterans searching for employment. Here are a few:
- Wounded Warrior Careers Program: Offered through the National Organization on Disability (NOD), this program’s purpose is to help veterans with serious disabilities achieve meaningful, rewarding and sustainable careers in the civilian sector. Career specialists work with the veterans, providing support and guidance to help them identify and achieve their career goals.
- VetJobs: Sponsored by the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), VetJobs is a job board which allows employers to easily reach all members of the military community. VetJobs was established in 1999 and receives 20,000 visitors a day.
- Bonds of Courage: With a staff that includes veterans themselves, Bonds of Courage offers a variety of assistance to veteran job-seekers – from networking to preparation for answering difficult interview questions.
- Feds Hire Vets: This veteran’s employment website was created as a direct result of the Executive Order signed by President Barack Obama regarding the employment of veterans in the federal government. The site includes information for veteran job seekers, transitioning service members, and veteran’s family members.