The Learning Mindset: How to Win in the Civilian Sector

Learning mindset
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The 1% and 99% are making headlines, but I'm more worried about the 20%, the 50% and the 75%. The 20% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans ages 18-24 who are unemployed, the 50% who are underemployed and the 75% who don't graduate from the programs of study that they start after they get out.

Here's a bit of insight into the employment market that may surprise you.

Employers are frustrated. Despite record-high unemployment rates, they can't find hardworking employees with the skills they need to be competitive internationally. Fidelis has talked with hundreds of employers who want to hire military veterans, because they are tired of hiring lazy, entitled young kids right out of school who refuse to do what they need to do to get the job done.

That may sound harsh, but we've heard it enough to put it in black and white.

Employers want military folks because they think you're great raw material, but they know that you don't have experience in their business and so they need you to build specific skills. Remember that it takes years to become an expert at military skills, and it's the same in the civilian sector. General management is just that, general, and employers need expertise.

Employers need you to have a learning mindset. That means that they need to see you as an intellectual sponge, who is eager to learn, humble and willing to work as hard as you have to get the job done.

Steve Jobs, rest in peace, is the most heralded CEO of his generation. But if he showed up on a submarine, infantry battalion, a command regiment or an air wing, he'd have been a liability. He wouldn't know the gear, he wouldn't know the lingo, and he wouldn't know how we do things in our unit. He'd have needed you to take care of him and keep him alive until he could learn.

It's the same way for military folks joining a civilian industry. We have a great base of leadership skills, team orientation, and we work harder than almost anyone. But we need to learn their way of doing things.

We need to become masters of our new circumstances. What worked in Iraq and Afghanistan won't immediately work in Silicon Valley. It won't work in green technology. It won't work in oil and natural gas, automotive or medical devices.

But once we've learned how these industries do things, they'll want to learn from us as well. It happens all the time. The vets who are humble, listen, learn, build a reputation for hard work and focus on the details and drudgery, those folks get on the fast track.

Every single business I know admires military leadership, training and teamwork. Employers will assume that you've got a great base, but when you get your DD214, you become CEO of your own life. We all need to act like it. We all need to know where we're going, what we're learning and why.

When you step in front of an employer, know that they want to find a reason to hire you. You just have to sell them. You are the product that you need to sell in order to get in the door. Practice your pitch, find a dream, figure out the first step, then start building your skills, build a trusted referral network and use LinkedIn and Facebook to maintain your contacts.

Always be able to answer the question, "How can I help" -- because most people will ask you.

It doesn't happen immediately, but if you act like an entrepreneur, if you're aggressive about selling yourself and you think about other people's interests first, you will find your niche.

There are 26 million veterans in the U.S. It's the world's largest and most badass fraternity, and it's full of successful people who want to help the current generation.

Gunnar Counselman is founder and CEO of Fidelis, an end-to-end education solution for the military-to-civilian career transition. Counselman is a former Marine human intelligence (HUMINT) officer who served in Iraq, Bosnia and the Horn of Africa before attending Harvard Business School. After that, he transitioned to the civilian world as a consultant with Bain and Company before starting an independent consulting practice focused on innovation and strategy in higher education.

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