No matter the war, returning to the civilian workplace brings up a certain set of challenges for veterans.
To recognize Veterans Day on Nov. 11, Workforce contacted several veterans and professionals involved with transition programs to pinpoint how veterans should better prepare themselves for the civilian workforce and what companies can do to better integrate veterans across all the levels and departments of the organization.
Charles Wardell fought in the Vietnam War for four years, reaching the rank of lieutenant. When he rejoined the civilian world, because of pervasive negative feelings about the Vietnam War, there was no groundswell of support to hire the soldiers when they returned home. Still, he applied to Harvard College — and was the only one of 1,300 veteran applicants that year who was accepted to the school.
After graduation, Wardell’s first jobs as a civilian were to serve as deputy special assistant to presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. He later held senior leadership positions at several companies, including American Express and Citicorp. He now is the CEO and board chair at executive search firm Witt/Kieffer.
entering the civilian workplace involved the fact that as a female, she was a minority in the Air Force. Certain experiences and stereotypes in part inspired her to pursue a doctorate in industrial and organizational psychology.
She is an instructor of psychology at South Florida State College and is writing her dissertation on leader wisdom, leader age and leader competency as predictors of a hostile work environment.
Mika Cross served in the Army for seven years: three as an enlisted soldier and four as an officer, transitioning out of the military twice. She shipped out for basic training in 1995. Her unique experience of going through the process of becoming a civilian two times rounds out her insight into the ins and outs of the transition, and what resources or factors can help it be successful.
Cross now leads the strategic communications, digital and public engagement team at the Labor Department’s Veteran’s Employment and Training Service— the sixth federal agency she’s worked for.
Wardell, Engelhardt and Cross served at different times and in varied political climates. However, throughout their experiences they’ve noticed a similar theme: Most companies do a poor job of transitioning veterans into the workforce, and change is required both on an institutional and individual basis to combat this.
“It’s been 24 years since I completed my military career, and the issues I faced are still there,” said Engelhardt. “They have already given up what most people take for granted, the status quo of normal daily living and normal career progression in the civilian world. They have to redefine themselves.”
The Context of Returning from War
Wardell painted the picture of what return might look like for today’s veteran. They join young, expecting to have a military career, unlike Vietnam veterans like Wardell who were drafted, served four years, transitioned out at age 22 and started a career or enrolled in college with people around the same age. As today’s military shrinks, enlistees and officers transition out in their 30s or 40s. They often start a career at a much older age than other workers in the civilian world. They may have a boss in their 20s who doesn’t understand or appreciate the military.
Also, as Wardell’s colleague Kimberly Smith noted, older veterans are more likely to have families and children. They may want to spend time reconnecting with their family, believing it’ll be fine to take time to settle in, but actually the opposite is true. It dims their prospect for re-employment, said Smith, vice chair of the board of directors and senior partner, health care practice at Witt/Kieffer, because employers will wonder what they’ve been doing for the past year; “hanging out with the kids” isn’t seen as a value proposition for the private sector.
Then, there’s the fact that they often get deployed eight or nine times, meaning they constantly leave and return to their family. This can put a strain on a marriage or other important relationships.
Finally, they may exit with a range of skills and know they have the experience to start higher than entry level, but they don’t know how to translate military skills into the civilian workforce.
Skills and Expectations Gaps
Each interviewee mentioned some variation on the difficulty of translating skills from one environment to the other. A language barrier exists between the military and civilian worlds that may muddle a veteran’s resumé for a hiring manager. They may not know how to interview, write a cover letter or other basic job search functions.
The military uses different vocabulary and a lot of acronyms, said Smith. Sometimes the search firm will get a resumé, she added, that clients could never understand.
“We have to work with people from the military to translate their vocabularies and experiences for employers,” said Smith. “I think people coming out of the military do not prepare far enough in advance to ease that transition. And there is more that we all can do to help them prepare.”
Engelhardt faced these challenges when she entered the workforce as a female veteran. Her resumé was several pages long and she didn’t know how to reduce it.
“I was 37 years young, and had experience that most men don’t have; and how do I compete for a professional position at 37 when I didn’t understand how the corporate America job search worked?” she said.
Engelhardt realized she would have been well into a management role if she had pursued a civilian career instead of military service. “But I didn’t know how to define who I was after a full career in the military, and the corporate world didn’t know how to define me. Where did I fit?”
Cross also faced challenges, but thanks to a mentor, she received advice and preparation that helped her. What she advises veterans now is that, even if they’re expecting a 20-year military career, they should understand it might not work out like that. They have to consider how to prepare themselves for that transition into the civilian workforce.
She learned the fundamentals like creating a resumé, writing cover letters, interview skills and networking in the Army Career Assistance Program. Without the opportunity to learn these skills, she said, she probably would not be where she is today.
“We should be setting up our uniformed service members for success in the sense that the military is one piece of your life,” she said. “We need to be equipping ourselves with [certain] competencies and skills while we’re in the uniform so that we can have an easier and more successful transition to life as a civilian when we get out.”
On an organizational level, hiring managers may hold certain misperceptions about veterans that stop them from taking that first step into the workplace.
What may keep veterans from making it is the private-sector perception that service members need a “command-and-control” style of leadership, said Smith, who specializes in conducting executive searches for hospitals.
“I wouldn’t say veterans need this type of leadership or structure, but that is what they’re used to. They need time to adjust to different ways that civilian organizations behave and to less formal types of leadership,” she said.
Another issue on an organization level is that there is not as much understanding and appreciation for a military life as in the past, said Wardell. Fewer people enter the military today, so fewer people are directly affected.
“That is not a criticism. It just means that people in general have a harder time relating to veterans,” he added. “They might not understand the skills that are learned through service or the challenges of entering the workforce. As a result it is important to help educate employers about these things.”
Along with this lack of understanding, another organizational roadblock in terms of successfully hiring and including veterans is fear. HR and hiring leaders may be hesitant, fearing that someone might be injured in some hidden way like a traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder or some other conflict-related disability, said Engelhardt.
It may be more natural for them to stick with the status quo, she added, but “none of us are perfect; we all bring baggage to the companies we work for.” She suggested companies invest in veterans but acknowledge that potential baggage through health plans. “Make mental health medical services a priority for every employee, but especially veterans and their family,” she said.
Corporate and Government Responses
Certain organizations aim to tackle these issues, as well. For example, in 2011 President Barack Obama announced a plan to address the career readiness of transitioning service members. The Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs led the redesign of the Transition Assistance Program, or TAP, with the aid of other federal agencies like the Department of Labor and the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Cross was one of many veterans who used TAP when transitioning to the civilian workforce.
“Just as service members must meet military mission readiness standards while on active duty, they must now also meet career readiness standards before they transition to civilian life,” said Dr. Karin Orvis, acting director of the Transition to Veterans Program Office, or TVPO, within the Defense Department.
During TAP, service members complete a number of tasks to prepare themselves. They learn how to create a 12-month, post-separation budget; how to identify any skills gaps for the job they want; and how to transfer military skills to the civilian workforce, said Orvis. They also put together a job packet that includes a resumé and both personal and professional reference letters.
What’s key about this model is that it promotes this preparation sooner rather than later, she added. That is, service members are encouraged to think about the transition and what they’ll need to do to succeed early in their military careers.
“Before the redesign we were hearing that service members were not sharing when they were preparing to leave the military, because they were afraid of the stigma among their peers and leadership,” she said. “Part of the culture change is removing that stigma so that preparation is part of the norm.”
This will help the military in the long run, especially when recruiting the next generation of service members, Orvis said. If people see veterans succeed after being in the military, then the military will be seen as a more viable path for a successful career. “Effective off-boarding helps lead to effective onboarding as well,” she added.
Transition programs also exist on a corporate level. The Patriots Initiative is a nonprofit organization that created the Warrior in Transition Matrix, a comprehensive list of carefully vetted and evaluated American companies that have “excellent veterans transition/hiring programs,” wrote Greg Hillgren, the initiative’s chairman, in an email interview. The matrix is free, public and regularly updated.
“The best ones are both comprehensive in their scope and have clear commitments from top to bottom — from the executive suite to the factory floor,” he added. “Some companies simply talk a decent game, but the firms operating effective, durable programs have some common denominators.”
These factors include established mentoring programs for veterans, a “military skills translation expert” on staff to ease communication, and a corporate philanthropy strategy that supports nonprofits for the armed forces, Hillgren wrote. It also helps if the CEO and executive team support hiring veterans companywide and actually follow through, publicly reporting their percentage of veterans employed.
One vital attraction for veterans seeking employment is if the company already has a proven track record of hiring veterans across all levels and departments, he added. Success breeds success.
Web: Andie Burjek is a Workforce associate editor. Comment below, or email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.