This year, an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 people will leave military service. After having served their country and possibly facing an enemy in combat, they will confront other daunting challenges as they transition to civilian life. And at the top of the list will be finding a job.
Many hiring managers probably want to hire veterans for patriotic reasons, as well as the skills and work ethics they bring to the workplace. As a result, most former military personnel will likely be hired by small businesses (the chief U.S. job-creators) with flat organizations and lean operations. This is the opposite of the military with its chains of command and 1.45 million enlisted personnel. The military and the business world can also have distinctly different objectives, structures and procedures, so when the men and women who serve our country finish their commitment and look for jobs, the distinctions between the two come into sharp focus. Yet while it’s important for businesses to be open and flexible when hiring and working with veterans, it is incumbent on the vets to adapt to the business’ culture.
Discussions with ex-military personnel who have made the transition highlight many of the challenges they faced acclimating to the private sector. The issue stated most frequently was that most hiring managers will have little or no understanding of the military, so veterans need to translate their service-acquired skills into easily understandable terms. The résumé is the place to start as it is the first impression of the job applicant. A simple listing of a military career won’t be effective; vets need to be able to succinctly explain how their armed forces experience will benefit a private-sector employer. Describing the outcomes and results of their military work will give employers a better idea of how their skills can apply to business. Coinciding with the résumé is a language issue. The military has its own language and so does business in general and various industries specifically. Vets can help their chances of landing the job if they leave military jargon behind and pick up the parlance of the for-profit world. A good place to start is routinely reading business publications and books on the business best-seller list. This will also give them a better understanding of the workings of the business world.
Often, office procedures and customs are unspoken so they can be confusing to veterans making the transition to civilian work. For instance, the simple act of offering an opinion about a business decision may make a veteran uncomfortable. While the “sir, yes sir!” environment of not questioning authority portrayed in movies may be overstated in the modern military, service training does instill a deep respect for authority and orders, which may cause veterans to be reluctant to offer an idea or opinion to the boss. To be successful, veterans need to speak up as open discourse is standard operating procedure in most businesses.
Overlapping with open discourse is the tendency in lean small businesses to push decision-making down to front-line employees. This is a situation that may be new to many veterans who were trained and then worked in environments where decisions were made higher up the chain of command. The challenge for employers is to help vets become comfortable in a workplace where they will be making many business decisions for themselves.
Tangential to this is how employees in the private sector move up the ladder, or sell themselves. Advancing a military career differs from getting ahead in the business world. Those in the service are assigned to their positions by their commanding officers. Workers in business have more leeway in determining which jobs they pursue and what businesses they want to work for. This requires a more active style of self-promotion, which may be something veterans have to learn. They need to get comfortable promoting themselves in a positive way that still fits with the business’ culture.
Many veterans cite the poor job the military does in preparing them for life after the service. So, perhaps the most important thing a veteran can do to make the transition to the private sector is find a mentor to offer guidance, insights and contacts. This is a way employers can help – assign a seasoned employee to take the newly-hired veteran under his or her tutelage. Serving in the military is a life-changing event. During service, veterans often obtain skills and training that make them valuable to employers. However, regardless of those skills, veterans deserve a place in American business. Hiring vets can be a win for everyone if both sides understand the fundamental differences between the military and private sector and determine ways to successfully integrate veterans into the workforce.
Appeared in The Dallas Business Journal on Friday, October 5, 2012
James E. Thompson is president and CEO of The Insource Group, an information technology resource provider. He can be reached at email@example.com.