Why Veterans Make Bad Job Seekers (And How Recruiters Can Help).

it vetsIt seemed like a strange place to meet up with a Marine Corps Officer to talk about his pending retirement from the military, but I figured that an Irish Pub was as good a spot as any to discuss what has to be one of the more difficult situations you can go through, really.

Trust me on this one.

Having to transition from the military into civilian life is stressful enough, of course, but like so many of my other colleagues facing pending retirement, that means having to transfer into the civilian workforce, too.

If you’ve ever had to deal with the stress of finding a new job, it’s like that. Times a thousand.

Basic Training: A General Guide to Private Hiring.

When you compound the stresses of starting a new employment opportunity with having to also adjust to life after military service, it’s never an easy ask. Even for the toughest SOBs out there. Much like the Marine Corps officer, sitting across from me and sipping a pint, snacking on pretzels and wondering just how in the hell he was ever going to pull off a life that was both imminent and unimaginable for him, and, frankly, most of the service members I mentor.

He had a lot of things going for him, as many transitioning veterans do. For example, he had loads of operational experience, and, as you might expect, leadership in spades.

He was doing a lot of things right, frankly, for this next step, including proactively preparing to sit for his PMP certification, and really seemed to have both a good grasp of reality and a leg up given his skills and experience. But at the same time, he was unsure and unfocused – like almost everyone in his shoes.

I knew exactly where he was coming from, of course.

Only two years before, I had been in that same spot, the same situation, and that first hand experience has not only helped me with my day job as a Veteran Hiring Advocate with ClearedJobs.net, but also for the regular meetings I make time for, like this one, with service members who I can personally relate to, having been there not too terribly long ago.VETS-BTN-Annual2015-01

Not only am I able to help share my story with them, but this means I can see the issues (and challenges) surrounding veteran recruiting and hiring from both sides. And turns out, veterans make pretty lousy job seekers, for quite a few reasons.

Most of these are related to a lack of a civilian network and limited previous work experience (even if their roles in the military had similar duties and responsibilities, this too often gets lost in translation during the screening and selection process) when compared to other candidates with deeper connections and direct experience in the private sector.

The good news is that there are a few simple steps we all can take to make veteran recruiting and hiring a little easier for both sides, making sure that nothing’s lost in translation and that as recruiters and employers, we’re able to tap into some seriously awesome talent for our organizations today – and tomorrow.

Attention! Helping Veterans Understand the Hiring Process.

When signing up for the military, individuals generally enlist or receive commissions (and assignments) based largely on what they can learn, not what they can do.

After all, most of the rest of their military experience is going to be spent going to specialized schools, training programs and similar exercises in order to effectively train them on the tasks and tactics required to live up to the job standards for which the military is famous.

And it’s those standards for which service members are famous for getting done, no matter what that job happens to be.

All this normally happens without any external training or formal credentials. Training is an integral part of the military experience, and most all of it occurs without formal training prior to being placed in their assigned roles. If they don’t like the assignment they’re given, well, that’s just too bad – the military still has the highest expectation for every service member, regardless of previous experience or expertise.

Service members must figure it out – and the military is designed to ensure they do, through formal and informal training that’s almost always on the job. This philosophy leads veteran job seekers to have the feeling that they can do just about anything.

Give them an assignment, and no matter what, they’ll figure out a way to succeed. This is great when you’re in the military, but this “whaddya got” mentality can actually make it harder for veteran job seekers to really establish a career focus and articulate long term goals, justify fit or deep dive into alignment at all. Of course, it’s this lack of focus that comes across as a critical shortcoming in the eyes of most recruiters and hiring managers.

Furthermore, most veterans have little experience or insight into the expectations or conventions around typical company hiring processes or the restraints inherent to most recruiters, such dealing with multiple reqs and hiring managers or the compliance or legal requirements associated with the hiring process. This can often lead to miscommunication, confusion or sometimes, even concerns about culture or job fit.

Avoiding these is easily avoidable. Just remember to be extra careful to clearly communicate timelines, expectations and any follow up or action items required by either party – and make sure to leave the door open for questions or concerns as they arise.

For many veterans, this may be their first job search – and as a recruiter, you have a unique opportunity to provide a resource and share your insights and expertise with veteran candidates.

After their service, it’s really the least you can do.

AWOL: Making Veterans More Professionally Aware.

widget_02aEven those who do have a good career focus are often unaware about how their counterparts in the private sector are doing things.  This not only makes it harder for veteran job seekers to translate their skills, it also makes it harder for them to understand where they “fit” on the private sector totem pole.

“Am I manager or a director?”  “What’s the difference between a junior and a senior developer?”

Not understanding private sector titles leads many to either overvalue or undervalue their experiences. Add in the fact that many veterans might not have had experience in the private sector, but might not have any hometown, either – both fairly large operational biases recruiters have to work to consciously minimize.

It’s important for talent pros to know and to help hiring managers overcome the fact that moving around a lot isn’t a liability, like for corporate employers. In the military, job hopping is a way of life – and a natural part of job assignments and career progression. After moving around every three years or so, service members get used to succeeding in pretty much any location without being too attached to any.  

On the downside, of course, this confidence in their adaptability may inhibit veteran job seekers’ ability to narrow down targeted regions or identify specific markets for focusing their job search efforts. This issue is often compounded by the fact many transitioning veterans last duty station is located in relatively isolated areas far away from where they’re likely to find a lot of job options as civilians.

They might not know where they’re going next (which most are already used to). The only thing they know for sure is they don’t want to stay in a place like Fort Huachuca, Arizona, for a second longer than absolutely necessary – and therefore, veteran job seekers are often willing to entertain offers just about anywhere.

While this flexibility and sense of “I’ll work anywhere” seems like it’s viewed as a selling point by many candidates, it’s just as likely to come across to recruiters as, “He sounds desperate.”

Which, if your other option is Ft. Huachuca, is probably true.

The Veteran Job Search Journey: From Naïvety To Cynicism.

veteran job fairEntering the job search with no clue about the hiring process, no connections and no ability to focus or target their search, too many service members look for that perfect job in all the wrong places – and for many, that first step in their search is by attending a “job fair” targeting veterans – of which there are always a lot of options, which you’d think would be a great sign.

That is, until you realize that the companies at these “career fairs” aren’t there to hire for the most part; instead, the booths are filled with for-profit colleges or bogus training programs looking to collect their GI Bill disbursements as well as many employers representing either entry-level, hourly jobs most veterans don’t want or have any interest in, or else jobs that veterans simply don’t have the qualifications for – often, both are represented about fairly equally.

If a veteran job seeker takes the time to engage with any of these employers, of course – even if there’s a perfect match – they’re put off and told to “check the website,” “apply online” or, in some cases, fill out a thinly veiled lead gen card so some sales guy can call them to sell them on some service or specious for-profit “degree” course.

These employers are there to make a “good faith effort,” with no faith whatsoever they’ll actually find qualified candidates for their roles – most recruiters have just figured out that “veteran” isn’t an independent niche nor placeable skillset without the qualifications to back it up. And let’s face it, sometimes, veterans aren’t the easiest sells. Which is why recruiters just have to try that much harder.

Service members have always been a little cynical, to say something of an understatement, and cynicism has long been a staple of military life. That happens when you realize the reality of what you’ve signed up for and the glamour fades away – and you have to deal with the situation as best as you can.

Amazingly, we almost always do, somehow – but that doesn’t stop us from being cynical. Even in the military, recruiter’s’ promises don’t always live up to expectations – that’s a shared experience most veterans have that they’re likely to cross apply to their current situations.

This leads them to often mistake action and output for progress and outcomes, focusing more on sending in as many resumes and landing as many interviews as possible (the “spray and pray” phase) instead of refining their search and operating much more targeted strikes against a much smaller list of predefined targets. Less collateral damage that way.

Call of Duty: What Employers and Recruiters Need to Do.

serviceAs I wrote above, the single biggest barrier for military job seekers is their complete lack of a professional network or established industry connections – and that, of course, can only be developed, not taught.

Of course, many service members don’t know where the heck to even begin developing that network, which is a critical first step where recruiters and employers can really make a huge difference for veteran recruiting and hiring.

One of the easiest tactics is to encourage your current employees who were also veterans to remain engaged, whether informally through LinkedIn groups like the Veteran Mentor Network or more formal programs to help transitioning job seekers, like American Corporate Partners or Veterati.

More personal contact with professionals outside the military will only help veterans become better, more educated and more effective job seekers. Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it sure can help.

Oh, and by the way: the more personal connections you’re able to extract from your current former military employees who know people with similar skills or who remain active (as I do) in veteran organizations or initiatives, the easier this all becomes for your organization – because we all know employee referrals are the best source of hire.

For veteran recruiting, these referrals reiterate previous successes and can become self-sustaining and scalable with the right training and support from the recruiting and talent organization. After all, veteran hiring is all our jobs – never leave a man behind, you know.

Many employers have also established veteran specific programs to encourage attendance at professional or industry events that might not be explicitly military related, but can fully engage veteran talents’ unique skillsets, expertise and experience. One example would be that cyber security company FusionX has recently been sponsoring two veteran employees to represent them annually at the BlackHat Cyber Security Conference, for instance.

Similarly, this concept can be aapplied to professional organizations such as Project Management Institute, Armed Forces Communication and Electronics Association (AFCEA), or the Society For Human Resource Management.

Many employers have established and actively promote programs for sponsoring service members’ professional dues, and also gives employers the ability to connect active duty members to current employees in person, a great chance to establish a relationship face to face – and begin differentiating your employer brand, finding fit and positioning yourself as an employer of choice worth choosing for veteran talent.  

Mustering Out: Where Employers Go From Here.

VOW-to-hire-heros-actThese programs are the real key to helping the service member build a network and it’s a tremendous opportunity for your organization to learn more about how to connect with other veterans. Employers should see two primary benefits from these or similar veteran recruiting or hiring programs.

The first is that it’s likely to position yourself and your employer brand as a possible destination for active duty personnel while also allowing your organization to proactively pipeline this talent against future positions or organizational needs.

While the above are only a few examples, the bigger picture challenge for those private sector recruiters is that we always need to be looking to connect with those service members still on active duty as much as possible.

Like all top talent, those individual competitors will prove to be your biggest competitive differentiator when it comes to veteran recruiting success. While transition services do exist, they can often be tough to tailor it to every job seekers’ unique situation, much less match it with every employers’ needs. This can go a long way into augmenting the ongoing DOD efforts to make it easier for companies to connect directly with separating service members – something that historically hasn’t been very easy to do.

While their transition course improves, though, the impetus is on employers to address these problems proactively and make a positive impact on military hiring and veteran recruiting today.

There will always be some difficulty in helping transitioning veterans due to the dichotomous chasm between the military and private sectors, but those institutional differences shouldn’t become barriers to individual communication and mentorship.

No matter what you do to help hire veterans, though, just do it for the right reasons – this isn’t about giving out any charity or handouts to less qualified workers because of their veteran status.

As NC4ME Executive Director Kimberly Lindsay Williams once said, Don’t hire veterans because it’s the right thing to do.  Do it to drive bottom line results.” 

I’ll salute that. Just please, recruiters, don’t let it ever be “as you were,” ever again, because it’s just not good enough for any of veteran – transitioning or otherwise. And remember, there’s no such thing as “at ease,” because veteran recruiting is never easy. But it’s almost always worth it.

bobwheelerAbout the Author: Bob Wheeler recently retiring from active duty after 20 years in the US Navy, where he recruited physicians, in June of 2014, Bob has launched BW Career Services, a consulting and coaching firm designed to help assist other veterans with their transitions into the private sector, and serves as an account manager with ClearedJobs.net.

Follow Bob on Twitter @SailorDoc or connect with him on LinkedIn.

Bob Wheeler served 20 years in the US Navy and is currently an account manager with the job board ClearedJobs.Net . You can connect with him on LinkedIn and Twitter.

  • Noel Cocca

    Excellent post Bob, thank you from one Physician Recruiter to another!

  • There is a lot of good information in this posting, Bob. Thank you.

    You are off the mark about quality veteran career fairs, however. My company, RecruitMilitary, conducted 101 career fairs in 49 cities during 2015. Schools made up less than 14% of our company revenue. You rightly point out that the top need for veteran job seekers is to develop social capital or contacts. Yet, then you dismiss one of the principle tools for developing contacts which is meeting employers at career fairs. Lots of the free-to-employers job fairs are of low quality. Quality career fairs, on the other hand, result in contacts, networking and job offers for veterans who know how to work them. Discouraging veterans generally from leveraging this fruitful activity does them a disservice.

    But again, other than that error, there is a lot of good advice in your posting.

    • I actually agree with your thoughts on Career Fairs, Peter. Please remember that this article was written towards an audience of recruiters- not job seekers.

      As you point out there are a wide variety of job fairs out there- unfortunately the job seekers may not appreciate a “high quality” vs a “low quality” event from the business perspective. Because the “free to employer events” are the ones more often found in the outlying areas or on the base itself this is often times the first experience service members have with job fairs.

      Job seekers who attend these less than ideal events early in their transition frequently leave thinking that all job fairs are alike. This feeds into their cynicism of the process.

      I’m a big fan of targeted and niche job fairs- heck that’s one of the things my company ClearedJobs.Net has been doing for 15 years. I just think the negative perception in the minds of some job seeker is real and something we in the recruiting world need to understand in order to combat it and show the value of the “good events”.

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