I have been fortunate to participate in no small number of veteran employment panels in which human resources professionals and corporate recruiters share their insights with veterans. Time and again the same question invariably is posed to the panel:
“What are employers really looking for?”
That really is the million dollar question, and it is invariably answered with a single word:
It sounds simplistic, but it’s true. Employers are seeking to fill holes in their organizational chart, and those holes must be filled by people who are qualified to perform the tasks and assume the responsibilities that come with the job. Those who have served in the military are certainly ready to assume the responsibility that comes with a position within a company; after all, responsibility is what wearing a uniform is all about. Responsibility to protect and defend the nation and its citizens, responsibility to comrades in arms, and the responsibility to effectively lead others with both compassion and professionalism.
A sense of responsibility and commitment is part of being in the military, and it doesn’t vanish once they hang up their uniforms. It is a part of their character.
What veterans and transitioning military lack, however, are skills.
Let me back up a moment to explain what I mean. In the military each and every man and woman is expected to master not just one, but two sets of skills: those skills that define their Military Occupational Specialty (MOS – such as artillery, administration, maintenance, etc.) and those skills that define their military service. They can learn everything from how to drive a tank to how to fly a stealth bomber through their technical training regimen, but before they get the keys to an M-1 Abrams Main Battle Tank those who sign up must first begin the acculturation and training process that brings them into the martial fold.
They get to go to bootcamp. Or OCS.
Whether as a recruit or an officer candidate, the privilege of wearing the uniform must be earned through the successful completion of an intense entry level training program. Regardless of which service a person joins, he or she must go through the crucible of acculturation that forever changes them from a civilian to a Soldier, Sailor, Airman, or Marine. Once the right to wear the uniform is earned the newly minted graduate ships out to their MOS school, which is where they learn how to perform their specific job.
It doesn’t end there. Throughout a person’s military career (whether it be three years or thirty), he or she is continually learning about leadership, reinforcing a committed work ethic, and being a member or leader of ever growing teams in addition to increasing their technical expertise. In short, military professionals are developing their skills continually from the day they join until the day they leave. The skill sets of those in uniform don’t stop expanding until they get out.
It is the skills that come from being in the military that employers are looking for. In the words of an army veteran and CEO of a multimillion dollar medical technology company:
“I want to hire people who were just like I was when I left the military. Eager to learn, eager to work, and eager to be part of a team that is out to accomplish something. I want to hire veterans because I know they will work hard and I don’t need to teach them how to work with other people.”
In short, the business world is looking to hire people with the skills that come with being a military professional.
The problem is that so many veterans only identify themselves by their MOS skills and as a result they sell themselves short. They only see themselves as an infantryman, an truck driver, or a bulk fuel delivery specialist, and they present themselves as such. I don’t know how many times I have heard “I’m just a dumb grunt. Nobody is hiring grunts in the civilian world!”, but it’s somewhere in the thousands. And that is the problem.
Veterans need to present themselves to employers as solutions to their manpower problems, and a big part of being the solution are the “soft skills” that those in uniform possess. Things like commitment, sense of responsibility, work ethic, and leadership. The corporate executives and hiring managers I speak with are unanimous in their desire to hire people with those qualities, and those are qualities that all veterans (except for the knuckleheaded few) possess.
Veterans and those transitioning out of the military will be more successful in their search for a new career if they can present both the soft skill set that the acquired while in uniform and the skills that meet the needs of the company. The rub, however, is how to learn the specific skills that the employer is looking for.
Those are the skills that I referred to earlier. Job- or industry-specific skills.
There are many ways that veterans can build their specific skills set, and a great many of those ways are completely free. Veterans can research the requirements for a job or industry that they like through websites like careerbuilder.com and monster.com. They can meet with people already in the industry through networking events such as the Marine Executive Association, NavNet, or social networking groups such as meetup.com. They can participate in local company and industry sponsored programs such as the Business 101 or nationwide programs like the MedTech and BioTech Veterans Program (MVP). By conducting research, networking with others, and taking advantage of free industry sponsored training a veteran can tangibly begin to fill the gap in their skills and make themselves more competitive for the great jobs and careers that are out there.
There are a lot of ways to build the skills that employers are seeking. All you need to do is get started.