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:

“Skills.”

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.

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Networking and the MEA

The other night I had the opportunity to attend a Marine Executive Association (MEA)-West meeting.  What is the MEA, you ask?  I’m glad you did, because it is a great resource for transitioning servicemen and women because it leads to something we all need: jobs.

The MEA is a networking organization where people like me who are leaving the service can meet others who are transitioning as well as business people who need quality people to join their organizations.  It is informal (after all, the only rank anyone has after they get out is “Marine”) and informative, because most of transitioning military types really don’t know that much about civilian employment.

Here is the writeup about the association from their website (http://www.marineea.org/):

“The Marine Executive Association is a national, volunteer, non-profit organization of former and current active duty Marines who provide assistance to Marines transitioning from active duty to reserve/retired status, leaving the Corps at the end of obligated service or moving from one civilian career/job to another. Transition assistance includes: Resume review; Job hunting and interview tips and techniques; Job posting by employers to the MEA web site; Resume posting by Marines for employer download; and resume and interview coaching by volunteer Marine. The MEA provides a weekly E-Mail list of all jobs that have been posted during the previous week and resumes posted for employer download, review and screening.”

The association is open to all services, and in the most recent meeting that I attended there were Air Force, Army, and Navy vets there too.  Transition is the great equalizer and now that we all dress the same we share the same concerns and have the same need for employment, so the inter-service rivalry goes right out the window.  We’re all in the same boat now.

The meetings are monthly occurrences.  On the third Wednesday of the month the attendees gather to socialize and have a drink at Iron Mike’s, which is the Staff Noncommissioned Officer’s club located in Camp Pentleton’s South Mesa events center.  After a half hour or so, we all migrate over to a meeting room where a guest speaker will talk to the crowd about what it’s like on the other side of the fence.  Our speaker for the last meeting was Kim Shepherd, the Chief Executive Officer of the Alfred P. Sloan award winning placement firm Decision Toolbox.  She gave us tremendous insights into the business world, with a strong emphasis on how to evaluate yourself in order to find what you are really interested in doing in your next career.  Kim was followed by a group of business leaders from the Los Angeles area who are interested in helping veterans learn more about the business world.  They are a group of great Americans who want to help vets find jobs, and they shared some great ideas and recommendations to help veterans make it from job seeker to job finder.

One of the great aspects of MEA meetings is that we get to hear about the corporate sector from corporate professionals, and the insights that they give are priceless.  It isn’t every day that an industry leader takes the time to mentor a pool of job seekers, but it happens at the MEA.  Research has shown that roughly 80% of jobs are found through networking – so getting to know people is certainly in your best interest as you transition!

After the guest speakers are finished we all introduce ourselves.  This is a chance to give your “elevator pitch”, which is a thirty to sixty second sound bite about yourself and what you are looking for.  You never get a second chance to make a first impression, and by standing up in front of a room full of people it gives you a little practice.  It also lets the employers in the room know if you are someone that fits their needs, and I have personally witnessed vets get job interviews on the spot after the introductions are finished; such is the power of networking!

The introductions are the last part of the structured meeting.  Once they are completed the formal part of the meeting is done it is a little like a high school dance as job seekers work their way across the room to meet up with businesspeople who have pitched the opportunities available in their organizations.  It is also when old friends catch up and new friendships are forged, or in other words, the networking tree grows a little stronger and new branches sprout.

It is a great opportunity to get out there and see what the job market is like.  Once you get plugged into MEA-West, you can begin receiving emails from the head of the organization.  He sends out dozens of emails each week, and each one contains anywhere from one to ten or twenty job opportunities.  Many of these opportunities are first listed in Steve’s emails, and a lot of veterans have found employment through the MEA.  One former Marine who left active duty in the 1990s shared that every job he has taken since taking off his uniform has been through MEA-West networking, and he is far from alone.  Even in this tough employment market there are jobs out there.  Networking with the MEA will help you find them, so find out where and when the next meeting goes and belly up to the bar!

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Lessons Learned:

1.  Networking works.  In today’s economic uncertainty there are literally millions of resumes flying around, and the stories about people who have submitted hundreds or thousands of resumes without finding a job are constantly in the news.  The vast majority of employment opportunities are found through someone you know, so increase your chances by getting out there and meeting people.

2.  Help yourself as you network.  If you don’t have personalized business cards yet, then get some printed up.  I personally recommend that you go to a stationary shop and have a set professionally done with only your name and contact information printed on the card.  This is for two reasons: first, you are looking for a job, and it is not the best idea to use the card from your current job to find a new one and second, handing a professional looking and feeling card with your name, phone number, and email address saves both you and the person you are interacting with from writing that info down on a cocktail napkin.  Anybody can print out a flimsy card on their computer, but remember that the first impression is the most important.  Do you want to be remembered as the cheapskate with homemade cards or the kind of person who puts some effort into finding a job?

3.  Carry a resume.  I will write a lot in the future about how to prepare a resume, but attending a networking meeting without your resume (and personalized business cards) is a bit like going to a nightclub in your pajamas – sure, you’re there but you aren’t really ready to participate.  Many employers are looking to immediately fill positions, and the guy or gal with a resume will get the job before the one who doesn’t.  Don’t be that person with empty hands when an employer asks for your resume!

4.  There are countless networking organizations out there.  MEA is just one, but there are commensurate organizations for all branches of the armed forces, for federal employees, civic organizations, etc.  They are all tremendous resources that you can tap for free, and you will certainly meet some great people along the way that will help you along the path to employment.