When you are on active duty, it seems like every American employer wants to hire veterans. Yet once you transition, it may seem like you can't even get an interview, much less a job offer.
Are employers hesitant to hire service members?
"They want you," said Herb Thompson, author of "The Transition Mission: A Green Beret's Approach to Transition from Military Service."
"There are countless companies who are committed to veteran hiring," he added.
The commitment is real. The list of Hiring Our Heroes partners reads like a Who's Who of American business, including companies like Google, Salesforce, USAA and Microsoft. The Veteran Jobs Mission (originally called the 100K Jobs Mission) has more than 200 member companies that have hired more than 600,000 transitioned service members since 2011.
Military.com and Monster evaluate companies each year that are best for vets with the highest percentages of veteran employees.
Veterans hear the wrong message.
If the commitment from employers is genuine, then why aren't you getting hired? Thompson said that part of the disconnect comes from the message itself.
"We are told companies are veteran friendly. It gives a false sense that people want to hire you because you are a vet. But you aren't being hired because you are a part of a group. You have to translate your skills," he explained.
While the instruction to "translate your skills" is one of the things my transitioning clients hear all the time, the imperative is not as clear. I reached out to Bill Kieffer, a consultant whose business centers on military veteran transition coaching, strategic talent management, and leadership coaching. He has the unique perspective of someone who served on active duty in the Army for 12 years, then moved into the civilian world, where he held senior human resources talent management positions in global corporations for more than 20 years.
Corporate values can be hard to put into practice.
Kieffer sees the problem from both sides. "If an enterprise makes a statement of being veteran friendly, unless hiring managers throughout the organization feel similarly and really understand the value veterans can bring, they may not support that policy," he said.
Part of the problem is that it takes focused effort and expertise to find veterans with the skills industry needs. "Even if people are interested in veterans, often they don't know where to look, what to look for, or how to deal with them," Kieffer said. Instead of a straightforward acquisition strategy targeting familiar talent pools, employers would have to take extra time and energy to prepare new veteran-focused strategies. This could include engaging with veteran service organizations, conducting new recruiting practices and learning how to understand the value veterans can add to their business.
"It can be a bridge too far," Kieffer said. "Their veteran friendly policy can turn into: If a vet shows up, maybe I'll talk."
Veterans must be able to bridge the gap.
The awareness of how hiring managers work is important for military members who plan to transition into business.
"Businesses are in business to be successful in business," Kieffer said. "They have constant and critical business pressures to respond to, especially if they are publicly traded. They often don't have the luxury of hiring talent from unfamiliar sources."
Hiring managers need to find talent capable of delivering now. "Since the military veteran by definition has no industry-specific experience, it is hard for the hiring manager to understand how they will get up to speed fast enough -- even if it is only a few short months," he said.
Yet military members have spent their careers going from assignment to assignment, getting up to speed, and delivering quickly. Describing their experiences in terms the hiring manager (and the automatic tracking system) can understand is the key to getting the interview.
"Employers hire candidates they believe most capable of two key things: One, successfully doing the work they need done and, two, fitting well in the culture," said Kieffer.
Which sounds like a tall order. Even though employers are open to hiring veterans or even seeking out vets, no one has the time or experience to translate your career for you. It is your responsibility to tell your story in a way the employer can understand, so they realize the great value you bring.
"If you want them to hire you, don't make it difficult on them," Thompson said, adding that the easiest way is to start in your inner circle and work outward -- especially on LinkedIn.
He said he started by talking to everyone who was a Green Beret who had gotten out. Then, he went to Army vets and later to veterans from the other services. "By the time I was talking to non-vets, I had refined how to talk to non-vets. The magic is, once you get out of your bubble, you can convince someone of your value."
Another place you can start to get your message right is by talking to civilians who do the work you want to do, Kieffer suggested. Find out about their deliverables. Collect their language. Begin to understand employer "Asks" and prepare "Answers" for them all -- using words that will land well on their ears. Focus on what you bring and what you want to do. Make reaching out to people in short, 15-minute conversations part of your daily routine.
Like investing for retirement, these small acts can add up to great future return. Finding a military transition coach to guide you and keep you accountable can help you get this work done in less time.
The most important thing is to get started on the process at least 18 months before your transition.
"Don't start early," Kieffer said. "Start now."
Jacey Eckhart is a Certified Professional Career Coach and military sociologist who helps military members get their first civilian job by offering career-level Master Classes through our Veteran Job Pool and on her website seniormilitarytransition.com. Reach her at Jacey.Eckhart@Monster.com.
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