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Lies They Tell Transitioning Vets: Hiring Managers Appreciate Service

soldier shaking hads with employer at career fair

This series entitled “Lies They Tell Transitioning Veterans” first appeared on the RecruitMilitary website and was contributed by Peter A. Gudmundsson, a former U.S. Marine artillery officer and the CEO of RecruitMilitary, a leading provider of veteran hiring solutions.

As usual, I start with an incendiary title to grab the reader’s attention. When I write that civilian employers don’t appreciate veterans, I don’t mean it in the “thanks for your service” gratitude way. I refer to “appreciate” in what Merriam-Webster defines as “to judge with heightened perception or understanding.” With some obvious exceptions, most civilian hiring managers do not truly understand what you did in the military and in any case need help determining how it relates to their company’s needs. While this presents a challenge and frustrates most veteran job seekers, this gap in understanding can be a fortuitous circumstance if you know your audience and yourself and learn how to leverage the situation. Like Stephen Covey’s famous quotation that highly effective people “first seek to understand, then to be understood,” it is up to the job seeker veteran to communicate the substance and value of his or her experience. Those who effectively learn to articulate their military experience in terms that are meaningful to civilian employers find greater success than those who expect their audience to do their own homework.

Veterans are often shocked at just how little many Americans know about the military. Like your Korean War veteran grandfather who endured stupid questions about how it must have been hard to fight in a (nonexistent) Korean jungle, modern veterans are used to perceptions from civilians that are ignorant, stereotypical or even hostile. The vast majority of the American population has no direct contact with the military. That means no personal service, close or distant family member service or even a neighbor or friend in uniform. Military history is no longer taught in schools and colleges and both Hollywood and the media vacillate between anti-military propaganda and cartoonish Rambo-like mythologies. Given this lack of experience, it is not surprising that many hiring managers and recruiters don’t know a submarine from a US Marine.

In our politically correct times, people, especially those in human resources, are extremely reticent to admit bias in their decision making. Above all other offenses we fear being labeled as racist, sexist, homophobic or now even cisgendered (look it up). Yet, the human brain is wired to draw conclusions from patterns. We may deny our inner voice, but we still make subconscious judgments every day. Many positive stereotypes of veterans exist, of course, but some veterans experience unspoken questions about Post Traumatic Stress, Traumatic Brain Injury and what I call Culture Fit Fear. This latter issue refers to the typecast about veterans that they are all drill instructors or mindless order-following automatons. Again, whether it be personal experience or the effect of Hollywood narratives, corporate personnel bring baggage to their evaluation of veteran talent that can be as ignorant as any sort of racial or gender bias.

Likewise, despite widespread societal acceptance of the military as an institution worthy of respect and admiration, there are those individuals who condemn military service and veterans on political, moral or personal grounds. One may be a pacifist or simply one who had a bad experience with a soldier or sailor.

As with “diversity bias” of any sort, education, patience and truth are the best antidotes. Many managers who may or may not admit to an anti-veteran prejudice will “come around” when exposed to enough high quality candidates and confronted with enough truth.

But even hiring managers with open minds and good intentions often do not know what they do not know. They cannot be expected to know the meaning of a rank, citation or other achievement if you, the job seeking veteran, do not find the right way to educate them.

Explaining Your Experience

Not surprisingly, self-knowledge is the powerful foundation of any job search. Who are you? What can you do very well for an employer? What do you seek from your life and career?

For the veteran, being able to articulate the relevance of your military career experience is not a function of some silly MOS translator software. Instead, through reflection, preparation and practice, you must be able to describe what you did in the military, what you learned and how you can apply that to solve a problem that the employer faces. Sometimes, the link is obvious (e.g. I flew C-130s and now I want to fly for American Airlines). Other times, you must make the connection for the employer in the context of her needs.

In a single written paragraph or orally in less than sixty seconds, you must be able to address the following questions:

  • What you did in the military in simple terms that a civilian can understand
  • What you learned and mastered
  • What you can do for the employer and why

Consider these military experience summaries. All contain elements of these three answers.

“I was an aviation ordnance technician in the Navy for four years. I was responsible for taking care of airplane bombs and missiles from an inventory management, handling and safety standpoint. If I made a mistake, a lot of good people might have been killed. That is why I am certain that I would be able to do a great job managing inventory in your regional distribution center because of my attention to detail, calmness under pressure, and ability to lead a team.”

“In the Army I was a Field Artillery Fire Direction Control Specialist for three years. The team relied on me to do the mathematical calculations necessary for big cannons to fire and hit targets that were as much as eighteen miles away. I learned to be very accurate with numbers under extreme pressure. This is why I am certain that I will do really well in your bank’s training program. I am very good at using math to solve problems and I can do so while multitasking and managing a team.”

“For three years which included two deployments to Afghanistan, I was a Marine infantry team leader. I learned a lot about leadership that I know I can apply to your company. Leadership and management are about accomplishing what needs to be done while taking care of people’s needs. I also learned how to communicate in a foreign culture so that I became a really good listener. You are looking for a customer service manager and I am certain that my team manager experience along with my genuine desire to help customers from diverse backgrounds solve problems will make me very successful.”

Most civilians generally respect military experience but they need help connecting the dots in terms they can use. You must show the personal knowledge, patience and empathy to articulate your value in terms that the civilian employer can understand and truly appreciate. There is a gap between veteran and civilian understanding. Thankfully, with effort and preparation, you can bridge that gap and reach your career goals.

Peter A. Gudmundsson is a former US Marine artillery officer and is the CEO of RecruitMilitary, a leading provider of veteran hiring solutions. He may be reached at @PAGudmundsson.

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