Diversity & Inclusion

Want to Hire Veterans? Help Them Be Better Jobseekers

Much has been said about the problems veterans have transitioning to civilian employment. It’s no wonder, according to a veteran whose civilian job involves linking new veterans with private sector employers. He explains that often the differences between military and civilian life make veterans “lousy jobseekers.”


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The good news is that the unemployment rate for veterans has improved in recent years. As of August, it stood at 3.8 percent for all veterans 18 and older. Even the rate for the youngest veterans, those called Gulf War-era II veterans, was just 3.9 percent.

Despite those low unemployment rates, finding civilian jobs is often a struggle for many new vets, says Bob Wheeler, an account manager for ClearedJobs.net, a job board for employers that are government contractors and need to hire people with security clearances. Before joining his civilian employer, he spent 20 years in the Navy.

Wheeler detailed the problems veterans face along with suggested solutions during a webinar for BLR®—Business and Legal Resources titled “Recruiting Veterans: Facilitating the Transition Between Military Service and Civilian Careers.”

Importance of Communication

Why do veterans report having trouble transitioning to civilian employment? Communication is key to the problem, Wheeler said in his program. “We really don’t know how to talk to each other.” Too often veterans and civilian employers talk to the people they know to learn about the people they don’t know, he said. Veterans talk to veterans, HR talks to HR, and operations talks to operations. All that talk isn’t likely to promote the kind of understanding necessary to help veterans or employers.

Wheeler cited an article aimed at helping employers recruit veterans that illustrates the problem. The article encouraged HR professionals trying to recruit veterans to create a business case for hiring veterans. Such a program should include identifying goals, determining the scope of the recruitment program, and gaining executive buy-in, among other things. The article also touted the public relations benefits of talking to customers and suppliers to let them know of the organization’s veteran friendly culture.

While all those ideas may be valid, Wheeler said, it left something out. “Really what we need to be doing better is talking to veterans themselves,” Wheeler said.

Bad Jobseekers

One point civilian employers need to understand, Wheeler said, is that veterans often “are pretty lousy jobseekers.” One reason is that they often don’t understand the hiring process used in the civilian world. Frequently, military service is the only job they’ve ever had, and it’s a job they decided on while still in high school.

When they go into the military, they’re placed in jobs based on aptitude, not on the skills they already have. Military recruiters look at aptitude scores to find out what jobs a servicemember is fit for. Then that person is sent to school before being placed in a job, where the military provides on-the-job training and mentorship. That process is likely to repeat itself over the course of the servicemember’s military career as the person is needed elsewhere.

Such an environment can lead veterans to think they can do anything—a “just tell me what you need me to do, train me, and I can do it” attitude, Wheeler said.

Veterans may have done great things in the military, Wheeler said, but they still may be nervous about the transition to civilian employment because they don’t know how “the game is played.” For example, they may not understand functions and job titles in the civilian world. For example, he’s talked to veterans who think “hiring manager” is an actual job title in the company. They don’t understand the hiring manager is an operations person who has the extra task of having the authority of hiring someone.

“So if they don’t understand who the players are on your end, it makes sense that they’re not going to be able to really navigate the system the right way,” Wheeler said.

What HR can do: HR can alleviate many of the problems veterans seeking civilian employment face, Wheeler said. Explaining how hiring works, including timelines and next steps, early in the process is helpful. Including that information in the job description or on the company website can be useful. He also suggested defining terms for the job in the job description.

Also, employers can make themselves veteran friendly by creating a veteran information point of contact—a specific person with a specific e-mail address—and adding that information to their website, Wheeler said.

In Their Bubble

In addition to a lack of understanding of the civilian hiring process, many veterans just coming out of the military don’t have a professional awareness, Wheeler said. If everything veterans know about their field relates to others in the military, they’re not going to understand how the job works in the private sector. Often, servicemembers are stationed in remote or overseas locations so they haven’t had the opportunity to connect with civilians in their profession.

Also, the career progression is different in the military, Wheeler said. In the military, people may get moved around to different jobs as a way to advance in rank. Servicemembers think of themselves as servicemembers first, and the job title/function comes second.

Veterans also are often not plugged into professional organizations and frequently don’t have professional certifications, Wheeler said. The military may send servicemembers to school to learn a job but then not pay for the test that would gain them the certification so important to civilian employers. Veterans may not know the importance of certifications because they’re stuck inside their bubble.

What HR can do: “Really reach out and try to pop that bubble,” Wheeler said. He suggested connecting with veterans’ groups at colleges and trade schools, since a lot of servicemembers go from the military into college using the GI Bill. HR can go to a school’s career services department and connect with veterans’ groups. Another idea for employers is to participate in formal mentoring programs for veterans as well as sponsoring veterans in relevant professional organizations.