What employers are really looking for

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.


16 responses to “What employers are really looking for

  1. Skills are important but many people forget about a very important skill – the ability to learn and adapt. In this technological world this is one of the most important skills.

    As I read resumes I’m always looking for that skill. I don’t care if you have been coding for 10 years. I want to know that you can adapt and learn and grow with my team. I want to see applicants that have discipline and motivation AND the ability to learn and adapt. It is a skill set that you don’t acquire in school nor in the military.

    • I don’t agree that folks don’t learn adaptability in the military. The ability to improvise in austere environments is a key skill that military people learn as a part of military life.

      • I still disagree… it is not learned, it is an attitude and the military, as well as other places, help bring this out in us. Those that come out of the military with that skill set had it going into the military. I was there once, I have some experience with it.

      • I will have to respectfully agree to disagree. Having spent about three years in Iraq and Afghanistan And other garden spots I can attest from experience that a serviceman’s ability to construct an outpost out of wreckage, rocks, rope, and ponchos and fight in climates from frigid to furnace is a testament to adaptability.

  2. Mike,
    You bring out a great point concerning “soft skills.” Also, to comment on the previous comment…quite a few of the troops I’ve supported were in situations where they had to, “adapt and overcome.” These scenarios range from serious to humorous, but were always impressive in their ingenuity.

    I’m sure some servicemembers had that skill going in but if they didn’t, learning it seems like a necessary survival skill. At least, that’s how it looks my vantage point.

    • Great observations, and absolutely consistent with from my experiences with Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines from one side of the planet to the other. Thanks for adding to the conversation!

  3. Mike, I agree. Skills are a valuable asset to the job market and I have experience in looking for those ‘set skills’ when in the recruiting and hiring process. The skills on the resume get him/her to first base ( possible interview ) but those skills must be accompanied with adaptablity, leadership ( to include being the ‘courageous follower’ ), maturity, and a management acumen to be a viable asset to the new organization. The military provided us with intangibles that could not be taught in a classroom. Bottom line – I welcome skills and experience but embrace the firm handshake, ‘real world’ skills, and confidence that the Veteran stores in his/her cargo pocket to the organization.

  4. Well done Sir. This topic is incredibly important because the issue of veteran unemployment is going to drastically impact our labor market for years to come. Many veterans that I know have fortunately found work outside of the military but there are few who actually enjoy what they are doing. I believe that these problems can be solved through formal training (GI BILL). One may have to work at a job they find less than desirable initially, but by obtaining a formal education you are reinventing yourself and making yourself marketable in the civilian market.

  5. The American serviceman has always had the ability to adapt in any situation. From the Revolutionary War onward, military men and women have proven time and again this so-called “soft skill”. I think that this trait is ingrained and a big part of an Americans DNA. If you weren’t able to think outside the box and adapt, you died.

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