By SARA ARTHURS
Even though they have a wide range of skills, marketing those skills to find a civilian job can be a challenge for some veterans.
Nichole Coleman, executive director of the Hancock County Veterans Services Office, said veterans bring a lot of strengths to the workforce, including that they are used to working with diverse populations “and with a lot of responsibility, at a young age.” They also tend to understand the big picture and want to make sure “everything we do — down to the small scale — is done with excellence,” she said.
But Coleman said veterans sometimes struggle with how to write their resume “in a way that makes myself marketable” — and employers, too, struggle to understand veterans’ resumes. Figuring out how to describe military skills and responsibilities in language civilians understand can be tricky, but Coleman said there are websites that offer “military skills translators” for veterans.
Another challenge is that veterans may not recognize the unusual experience they have. If a 19- or 20-year-old is, say, a platoon leader, “that could mean that they are responsible for the lives — literally, the lives — of four to 10 people,” Coleman said. They’re also potentially responsible for “millions of dollars” worth of equipment in inventory and expenses to manage when their unit is traveling.
“Most 19- and 20-year-olds don’t have that kind of experience,” Coleman said. But the veterans who do may not recognize “how valuable what they have to offer is.”
Then, once you find that civilian job, there are new challenges that may arise.
Coleman said veterans are used to “a team mindset where we work,” so it can be a challenge to adjust to an environment where perhaps you go to work and do your job, but don’t necessarily know a lot about the people you work with.
Coleman herself worked at a factory when she first got out of the military. “I had never done that kind of work before,” but it offered good pay and benefits, “and I was really excited to be there.”
Once she had been through the initial training and had a good understanding of her job, she began asking her supervisor and other leaders what else she could help with, then began taking on extra tasks. Management was “excited that I was asking these questions,” but her coworkers viewed her as “a brown-noser.” Coleman recalls being confused because, in the military, this is “what you do,” and she hadn’t realized that things would be different in the civilian world.
Coleman has interviewed close to 100 people who have wanted to come and work at her office, and many have mentioned the camaraderie as a reason. It’s a feeling that — as in the military — the staff have “got each other’s backs” and are all there to accomplish the same goal. It doesn’t always feel that way in the civilian workforce, she said.
Some companies allow employees who are veterans to self-identify through, for example, a different vest or a tag at the top of their cubicle, Coleman said. She feels that letting veterans do this “if they wish” will help strengthen bonds, as veterans may gravitate toward fellow veterans in the workplace.
Coleman said research shows that veterans tend to move from one job to another more frequently than nonveterans, and the veterans she has personally talked to about this have said it’s because they can’t find the camaraderie they had while they were in the service. “Helping them identify one another in the workplace helps them develop that camaraderie,” she said.
Coworkers, too, play a role. Coleman said everyone — veteran or not — brings their own past and their own experiences to the table. So rather than assuming why a coworker is — or is not — doing something, give them “the benefit of the doubt, that their intentions are good, until they give you a reason to believe otherwise,” she said. Someone who is extremely timid at work, for example, might be acting that way because they are stressed by an abusive partner at home.
A veteran-specific example of this is that veterans who have been in combat may struggle when they encounter loud, unexpected noises in the workplace. If someone musters up the courage to tell you how difficult those noises are for them, “please don’t make fun of them or tell them they’re just making it up,” Coleman advised. Instead, let people know as you’re approaching them, rather than sneaking up on them or trying to scare them.
Meghan Michael coordinates the Veterans Professional Network, a Toledo-based grassroots effort with the goal of helping veterans network with one another and with others in the community, including employers.
Veterans after Sept. 11, are “a really diverse group” and are different than what people may think of veterans, such as those who served during the Korean War or Vietnam War eras. Today’s veterans of working age include “a lot more millennials,” and how they network and interact is different, Michael said.
She said veterans are used to being in uniform and “in a uniform, your story is told by what you wear.” That is, another service member can look at you and instantly know what branch of the service you are in, what your rank is, and what medals you have earned.
“You don’t have to say anything,” Michael said.
But in the civilian world, in order for people to know anything about you, you have to tell them.
Also, “the culture in the military is all team-oriented,” Michael said.
She said veterans may struggle to take credit for something as an individual, rather than as part of a team, which can be a barrier when marketing themselves to a potential employer.
Michael and her husband are both veterans who left active service in 2005. He had a smoother transition into civilian life than she did, in part because he had built a good network and communicated to them what he wanted to do.
Michael said a lot of people don’t want to think about networking, or figure they’ll deal with it when the time comes — but then sometimes when it is that time, you find yourself with a great resume but no one is calling you.
She hopes employers will understand that veterans come from a culture unlike that of any civilian job, except perhaps firefighters or police. “They’re looking for the culture that they had in the military, and not all companies can provide that, or do provide that,” she said.
Often, she said, a company will hire a veteran and “The pay is great, the hours are great. … But that sense of mission is not fulfilled.” She tells employers that they need to not just hire veterans, but should have steps in place to help get them oriented and welcomed.
Coworkers, meanwhile, “could act in a mentor-type capacity,” recognizing that everyone is new at some point and making your first friend at work can be a challenge.
“Asking veterans about their service is not taboo,” Michael added.
She said some people may feel if a veteran doesn’t talk about their service, it’s because something bad happened and they don’t want to discuss it. But more likely, it’s that they “don’t know how to bring it up with civilians.” She advises asking general questions such as “Where was your favorite place you served?” to get a conversation started. It lets the veteran know their coworkers are interested in them and their experiences.
Michael said a veteran may think transitioning out of the military is something they need to do “on my own” but that’s not true — you need to “build a team” including mentors and coaches to help you.
Her network just started meeting this spring and is still small. Its events are open to the public. To be put on their mailing list, email Michael at email@example.com.