One of my favorite topics to teach recruiters and hiring managers is how to align military skill sets with civilian positions.  And I am always asked, “Why is it so hard for military members to translate their skills into something a civilian recruiter can understand?”  So, allow me to explain why this is such a challenge for them.

81% of military occupations have a direct or very close civilian equivalent.  We have engineers, nurses, lawyers, accountants, store managers, telecommunications technicians, truck drivers, food service managers and more.  And all military members possess, to some degree, intangible skills such as leadership, process improvement, problem identification, trouble shooting, managerial/supervisory administration, and project management.

The military assesses an applicant for attitude and aptitude to learn a skilled trade or to manage skilled labor and then presents the applicant with choices of career fields based on the assessment results. The applicant selects a career field based on factors such as available choices, demand for those occupations, associated financial bonuses for choosing harder-to-fill career fields, timeliness of training school availability, civilian career goals, and personal preferences.

Once an occupation is chosen, the military invests tens of thousands of dollars in the training and professional development of its service members.  The military also communicates defined career paths for officers and enlisted members, and manages their professional development and requires attendance at career development schools at predefined times.

As the years go by, service members are provided assignments into new positions of increased responsibility by a central team of military human resource managers.

And so, after 6 or 26 years, the service member is completing a successful military career having never assembled a resume or applied for a job. Very few have had a need to interview for a position; the few that have did not need to translate their qualifications and experiences into a different language in order to sell themselves to the decision maker.

In the months, even years, leading up to the point of separation or retirement, the military member becomes increasingly aware that there are major transition planning activities in which they should be engaging.   They also experience anxiety as the realization sets in that they are leaving a highly structured, path-driven, centrally-directed environment of military career management to the looser, endless-possibilities, individually-directed environment of civilian career management.

They struggle with trying to explain how very military specific positions such as “Command Sergeant Major” or “Executive Officer” might equate in a civilian work environment.  And, they are just learning about this social networking tool called “LinkedIn”, but they aren’t clear on what it can do for them and how to use it to find a civilian career.

So, while the military services and the Department of Labor are charged to help the service member prepare for transition to civilian life, I like to focus on those civilian recruiters and hiring managers and help them to understand the military better so they can improve their recruitment of veterans.  I find that once the recruiters and hiring managers get clear on what service members have to offer and better understand their levels of responsibility and salary expectations, their military recruiting programs really take off.  They make better choices on where to look for military talent and spend their talent sourcing dollars more effectively.  They have a higher rate of success in making good matches for their open positions, which is one step towards improving retention of veterans.


10 Responses to “So Why is it So Difficult for Military Veterans to Translate their Skills Into Civilian Language?”

  1. Dr. AP kaushik

    What about multi talented defence personnel, who take premature retirement with higher or the highest civil qualification attained along with most busy schedule of defence career.

  2. Robert Falc

    Lisa,
    Great article. As a retired senior NCO I have found that most employers have difficulty understanding the relevance of our military advanced leadership training to civilian sector advanced training. As an example, if I tell a civilian employer that I graduated from Infantry ANCOC or the First Sergeants Course the civilian hiring manager or HR person cannot relate that to business management or prject management training and experience.
    As a former S-3 Operations NCOIC I have tried to explain that I managed project developement for training operations, deployment of hundreds of soldiers and millions of $’s of equipment, etc. etc. For th most part all they see is a guy who carried a gun and shot at people. The few I’ve run into with actual military experience served for a term or two and did not advance into the senior ranks so have no idea that an E-7 and above do anything more than ride their butts.
    What we rally need is a way to legitimize and directly translate our military formal education courses and positions, in a recognizable way with that of recognized civilian training.

  3. David Sundquist

    What you stated is exactly correct. I went into the Air Force directly out of high school and spent the next 20 years traveling the world. When I retired, or started my second career, I went into an entry level job in manufacturing not having a resume, or really understanding the outside world. After 15 years with that company I was laid off and am trying to start over but its tough and I struggle each and every day. I hope soon that I will get an offer so I can get back to work.

  4. Mark Lyden

    Great article. Also, the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) is ineffective. This is the training the the government provides to our veterans and soldiers the skills to transition into civilian jobs. The training is old, tired and just does not work in this market. Yet it has not been updated in years. The former head of TAP even admitted that it needs to be overhauled…yet nothing has been done and they are still teaching old information that does not work.

  5. Rich

    One thing that Lisa touches on but doesn’t develop too much is the whole mental framework military folks, especially career ones, bring with them. Their entire adult life has been about service without regard to price, cost, profit, or competition. When they plunk themselves into private enterprise, they are generally unprepared for the focus of needing to generate revenue, save costs, and add tangible value on such a widespread basis in the company. Often, they either don’t appreciate some aspects of business in general or have difficulty expressing how they can contribute because it is a new orientation for them. I strongly suggest that if you are looking for talent, be sure to look for that talent in the service-oriented language and presentation of that military person, lest a gem in the rough go to your competitor.

  6. Brad Morse

    Lisa, I have run into this again and again. It is very difficult for me to explain that I ran a tactical operations center coordinating the actions of hundreds of troops conducting multiple different or mutually supporting missions while ensuring to minimize the loss of life or resources. I can’t count the number of time my Commander has told me “Sergeant Major, I want you to go down to X company, find out what’s wrong, and fix it!” But figuring out our civilian counterpart position? I have no idea what my experience would be equate to in the civilian sector.
    Whenever I have talked to companies about operations they want to talk about production or manufacturing. I have never run a plant in my life; but I have successfully planned, coordinated, executed, tracked and evaluated over 1300 combat missions in Iraq without a single combat loss. I have run budgets, trained units, created strategic and tactical plans, and coordinated the movement of units to the other side of the world and back again. Where does this line up in the civilian sector? I’ve run promotion boards, disciplinary actions, mentored and trained peers, subordinates, and superiors; but I wouldn’t know the first thing about how to run a civilian HR shop. That is what I would like to see TAP address when we are leaving the military. I can put together a resume that shows how I fixed and issue quantitatively and qualitatively; but will the civilian reading know the level of difficulty or effort it takes to achieve success on that task? WE just speak two different languages and I don’t know how to bridge the gap.

  7. Kirk Shulman

    Great article Lisa! I would also add that lack of adequate career mapping tools further complicates the transition process. The Transition Assistance Program (TAP) program and ONET Military Crosswalk are fairly limited in the guidance they offer to the vet. These tools tend to focus on a single Military Occupation Specialty (MOS) and discount any additional collateral duties that the vet may have held.

    For instance an 88M (Motor Transport Operator) gets cross-walked to a Truck Driver. In reality, the vet may have little interest in truck driving after separating from the military. She may have had multiple MOS-es while in service, and performed several secondary or tertiary duties that make her eligible for a variety of careers beyond the Truck Driver one directly linked to her primary MOS.

    Monster/Military.com has been working on a new solution that allows the vet to build a more comprehensive profile and thus see career options that are truly relevant to them. Look for the new tool to be unveiled around Veteran’s Day.

  8. RickG

    Vets should beware of trucking companies claiming to have programs for vets . They do not recognize military experience and because military trucks are automatics they force experienced 88M’s to go through low paying training periods .
    An exception is Quality Carriers in Tampa , FL . They are a tank carrier with 100 terminals . They will accept military driving experience and more importantly they are purchasing new tractors with automated transmissions .

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