Expert Insight: Tips for Military Vets Who Are Lost in Career Translation

By Beth Goodbaum

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With their extensive technical training and leadership skills, military veterans are often the ideal candidates for top manufacturing positions. Yet a prevalent challenge remains: veterans are lost in translation when they apply for coveted jobs, as many struggle to market their military skills for industry careers the right way. The solution is in strategic thinking and learning how to civilianize military experience, according to career experts.

The U.S. is preparing to pull troops out of Afghanistan next year and returning military veterans will inevitably fall into civilian life again and start job searches. That will entail ex-servicemen and women looking for ways to leverage their resumes and interview techniques, especially in the face of a challenging job market.

Kimberly Hessler coaches and trains military members and families in transition, as the CEO of Homeland Security Careers LLC, and admits that much of the time, military vets are uncomfortable promoting themselves. “The culture in the military is that you promote those who work for you. Now they must promote themselves and take credit for what they have accomplished,” she explains. “It is a drastic change from what they are used to doing.”

The transition challenge goes beyond the cultural setting. Many vets who spent years in a dramatically different setting do not know how to translate their skills. These vets will say that they can’t fulfill a position because they mistakenly believe that their experience doesn’t match a job descriptor, explains René Brooks, the CEO and president of Cameron-Brooks, a recruiting company that serves junior military officers.

Brooks says the strategy is recognizing how certain military skills and accolades can be applied to jobs. Furthermore, applicants should never undersell themselves. For example, some prospective job seekers will look at a descriptor and say, “I can’t do that,” yet they don’t realize that they have done something similar or at a different magnitude while in the military, such as troubleshooting a comparable system or working with a team of people.

Evan Guzman, senior consultant of strategic talent acquisitions for the military and veterans diversity recruitment program at Verizon, agrees, emphasizing that vets should never tone down their military experiences. “Don’t oversimplify the military job. Some might say that they drove a truck when they were actually a sergeant leader,” Guzman explains. This year, G.I. Jobs magazine named Verizon on its Top 100 Military-Friendly Employers list.

The Solution: Highlighting the Right Talents
“If you’re in the military, you need to give a lot of thought to how you have approached your work and your problem-solving approaches,” advises Brooks. “Go back and read your military evaluation.”
Honing in on military strengths can help vets relate their skills to leadership positions and develop resumes that resonate with business demands. All branches of the military — including the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force — have something in common that successfully translates to all business: teamwork. “Being in the military often depends on trusting the person besides you, and split decisions are often made as a team,” Guzman explains.

One of the best ways to market transferable skills is talking to other veterans for feedback. Bryan Zawikowski, vice president and general manager of the military transitioning division of Lucas Group, an executive search firm, says it’s essential for veterans to ask other ex-servicemen and women about how they selected their employers.

“Ask [vets] what surprised them in the process, for better or for worse, and what they did to prepare themselves. Don’t be afraid to ask them for referrals,” emphasizes Zawikowski, a U.S. Air Force Academy graduate and an ICBM Operations and Standardization Evaluation Officer who made his own vet-to-civilian transition.

In addition to using the Internet to research military transition job opportunities, veterans should stick with a military-specific recruiters. They might have top connections, and many also have military experience and may better identify with candidates in transition.

When it comes time to search, don’t set limitations on jobs. “A lot of veterans end up working for companies they never heard of, or in jobs they never realized they were qualified for or interested in,” says Zawikowski. Just don’t over-civilianize a resume, and take out unrelated jargon, he warns.

Find out what these career experts have to say about recruiters’ roles in veteran employment in IMT Career Journal’s upcoming coverage.