Military Veterans and Employment: Four Hidden Issues and Potential Solutions

Making the leap from active-duty military service to successful civilian employment is hard. 

Photo By: Lance Cpl. Luke Hoogendam. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

Photo By: Lance Cpl. Luke Hoogendam. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

I know. I did it in 2005. 

Despite my best efforts, I ended up in a dead-end outside sales job for which I was unprepared and in which my employer left me to sink or swim. 

After about two months, I sank. 

I got a better job, one that better fit my skills and abilities. But I was still underemployed. Thus began years of clawing with my fingernails for something better, pushing my way through graduate school and into what has become a fabulous career. 

Things worked out. But it was unexpectedly hard—for five reasons. One of those reasons is commonly discussed. Four of those reasons are hidden, or at least in my experience, they’re less frequently discussed. 

The one reason that’s common and well-discussed among veteran-assistance organizations is that it’s very difficult to translate what you did in the military into terms and roles that make sense to civilian human resources people and hiring managers. Because this is a very common and well-discussed issue, I won’t delve into it more deeply here. I will say that this is one area that military transition executive recruiters can be very helpful. Although I didn’t end up being placed through one of these service providers (due to me having issue number 2 below), I will put in an unsolicited plug for people like Lee Cohen at Lucas Group. He and others like him open doors to employers for veterans that would be hard for veterans to open without assistance.  

Let’s focus, therefore, on what I’m calling four “hidden” issues regarding military veterans and employment, and then I’ll offer a few ideas regarding potential solutions.

Here they are:

  1. Unrealistic transition preview. 
  2. Geographic inflexibility.
  3. A sense of entitlement.
  4. A knowledge and skills gap.  

Let’s unpack these with a bit more detail. 

Unrealistic Transition Preview

The problem: First, like any new experience, you can’t know exactly what it’ll be like until you do it. The same is true for transitioning from active-duty military service to civilian employment. Yet I had—and I sense that others may also have—an unrealistically positive view of what this transition would entail. I distinctly remember people telling me that after a few years as a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy, employers would be falling over themselves to hire me. This simply isn’t the case, and it’s what I’m calling an “unrealistic transition preview.” Decades of research has taught us the value of having a realistic job preview, or of knowing what a job will entail prior to employment—warts and all. The same, I think, is true of the military-to-civilian employment leap. 

It’s simply better to know in advance—at least a little bit—what you’re getting into.

Potential solutions: To deal with unrealistic transition preview, military personnel should start planning for their post-military careers on day one of their military service. Even if a person stays on active duty for 20 or 30 years, he or she will make the transition to civilian life at some point. More specifically, military personnel on active duty should consider:

  • Staying connected to civilian life. Military personnel should continue, as much as possible, to nurture interests and networks outside of the military. This must be intentional, because otherwise the military can easily become an all-encompassing lifestyle, and if you’re not careful, all of your friends will be military friends, all of your social relationships will become exclusively military-centric, and you’ll become increasingly isolated from the reality of the modern world of civilian work. 
  • Developing mentoring relationships with civilians. As part of staying connected to civilian life, military personnel should consider building and maintaining relationships with civilians who have successful careers. This will help military personnel stay abreast of what their careers might look like when they decide to leave active military service. Veterati appears to be a potentially helpful vehicle for such relationships. 
  • Managing their own expectations. Simply embracing the notion that transitioning to civilian employment will be hard could be helpful. It’s better to have expectations of difficulty and be pleasantly surprised than the other way around. 

Geographic Inflexibility

The problem: When you’re trying to find a job, it’s a basic fact that you’ll have more options if you can go anywhere. Furthermore, the way most executive recruiters or “headhunters” operate is one that’s best suited for people who are willing to go where the job is located, versus having geographic restrictions (e.g., “I will only take a job in Charlotte, N.C.”). I get it—life is complicated. I used Charlotte as an example because that’s where my search focused due to my wife’s employment there.  

Potential solutions: I see two possible ways to deal with this issue. Military personnel planning their transition should consider:

  • Being open to employment anywhere. I know, this is much easier said than done—and it’s an overly simplistic solution to this problem. It will, however, help one’s chances of getting a great job. 
  • Strategically focused networking. If you do have distinct geographic preferences for where you want to work and live after military service, one potentially helpful avenue is to focus your networking efforts on those groups and people located in the area in which you want to locate. Here’s the catch: These efforts often take months or years to yield benefits, so you should start well in advance of your desired transition date. 

A Sense of Entitlement

The problem: We’re lucky to live in an era in which American sentiments about the military and military service are overwhelmingly positive. I really, really like that. It has made me feel appreciated for my active-duty service and subsequent reserve service (I’ve been in the U.S. Navy Reserve now for about 12 years, making for about 15.5 years of total service thus far). A complicated side effect, however, is that such consistent admiration combined with occasionally interesting and high-stakes work can result in a sense of entitlement. Namely, I’ve noticed a tendency among veterans (including myself, in 2005) to feel like we deserve civilian employment. But such thinking is not only incorrect—no one owes me a job unless I provide value to them or their organization—but it’s also unattractive. Such an attitude could negatively affect how you act and talk about yourself, leading to a tougher-than-necessary transition to civilian life. Note that I’m not saying that all military personnel or veterans have this sense of entitlement, but it is something I’ve noticed, and it’s a potential barrier to successfully transitioning to civilian employment. 

A potential solution: Military personnel transitioning to civilian employment should remember to stay humble and to stay hungry. We have some wonderful, transferrable skills—like leadership, teamwork, problem-solving, and more—but we also have much to learn. Civilian organizations run differently than military organizations, so it’s up to us to crack the code of what they do, how and why they do it, and how we can add value.  

A Knowledge and Skills Gap

The problem: As discussed above, part of the problem with military transition is that it’s hard to translate military jobs and skills into language that resonates with civilian hiring managers. That’s true. But it’s also true that businesses need people with knowledge and skills that aren’t taught in the military. Despite our transferrable skills, we veterans aren’t always God’s gift to Corporate America. For example, military service doesn’t teach you fundamentals of accounting, finance, marketing, or entrepreneurship. One could argue that military service does provide some background in management, yet there’s still a great deal to be learned about how civilian organizations run (e.g., civilian human resources law, hiring practices, talent management, and more). 

Potential solutions: If one accepts the premise that military personnel might have a knowledge and skills gap regarding what civilian organizations need, potential solutions center upon education and training. A proactive approach toward gaining such knowledge and skills could include the following:

  • Seeking transformative educational experiences. Boot camp, Officer Candidate School, Reserve Officer Training Corps programs, and the military service academies are effective for training and socializing people for military service because they are intense, transformative experiences. To gain additional skills and knowledge of value in the civilian world, similarly transformative educational experience can help. For example, IESE Business School is actively recruiting military veterans for its Global Executive MBA, a top-ranked global program. My good friend (and fellow Navy officer) Matt Larkin went through this program, and he raves about it. I encourage anyone in the military—active or veteran—who wants a transformative, global experience to check it out. Click here for more information. IESE, by the way, is also the top executive education provider in the world as rated by the Financial Times for the past three years, and they’re actively seeking military veterans for those programs as well. I encourage military folks to learn more about two of their programs—Driving Leadership Potential and the Advanced Management Program and consider attending a preview day on Friday, Jan. 12 in New York City
  • Seeking employers that have a history of dealing well with veterans. One could potentially gain the necessary knowledge and skills for successful civilian employment through on-the-job training as well. And such training, or at least an ability to support newly hired veterans, is more likely to exist in organizations that deal well with veterans. One organization that helps to identify such organizations is Victory Media, which happens to have former Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Mike Stevens as its chief operating officer. 
  • Gaining professional certifications that civilian organizations value. An additional path toward gaining knowledge and skills that will help with successful transition to civilian employment for veterans is through obtaining professional certifications that employers recognize and value. Some examples come from the areas of project management, human resources (two organizations that offer certifications are SHRM and HRCI), investment management, and supply chain management. Numerous others abound. 

Finally, myriad organizations exist to help veterans. Here’s the page where you can download a list of them from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Here’s another list from Military.com. Not too long ago, Facebook launched its own group for veterans, with a focus on the technology industry. And I’m sure many others are out there doing great work (feel free to highlight any in the comments below). 

Above all, I think there’s value in broadening the conversation about what it takes to transition successfully from military service to civilian employment. And perhaps thinking about some of these “hidden” issues could be a place to start. 

I welcome and look forward to your comments and thoughts. 


About Ben Baran
Ben Baran, Ph.D., is probably one of the few people in the world who is equally comfortable in a university classroom, a corporate boardroom and in full body armor carrying a U.S. government-issued M4 assault rifle. He regularly consults leaders and organizations across a wide range of sectors and industries. Visit: www.benbaran.com.