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Survey: Military to civilian transitions are tough

Military transition to civilian careers

While U.S. servicemembers acquire valuable skills and go through diverse experiences, it’s often difficult for them to apply what they’ve learned to civilian careers, according to a 2013 University of Phoenix survey conducted by Harris Interactive in September and October 2013.

“We did this survey because we’re trying to figure out what drives veterans as they make their transition to civilian life and work, and also see what misconceptions they might have about the realities of the working world,” says Garland Williams, PhD, vice president of military relations for the University and a retired U.S. Army colonel.

The survey polled 1,010 adults 18 and older who are serving or have served in the U.S. military. Those surveyed reported that they needed job interview assistance (43 percent) and help with professional networking (38 percent) and career planning (36 percent). They also said they needed assistance finding available civilian jobs (34 percent), connecting with employers (33 percent), and developing resumés and cover letters (30 percent).

Only 33 percent of those polled said they had a plan for moving on into civilian life.

Planning is paramount

A transition plan is key, says Williams, who recommends that active-duty servicemembers determine their course of action at least two years before their anticipated departure.

“It’s all about finding the right application, especially for soft skills like leadership, critical thinking and problem-solving,” he says.

With that in mind, the University developed the complimentary Military Translator Tool component of the Phoenix Career Guidance System™ from Phoenix Career Services™ to help servicemembers discover civilian occupations in which they can capitalize on their skills and accomplishments.

“[The tool is] the most robust of its kind that I’ve ever seen,” Williams says. “It includes the Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) codes for all currently available jobs and ranks in all branches of the military — Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard — for both enlisted personnel and commissioned officers.”

The tool can help address some of the survey’s unexpected findings. Williams says he was surprised that leadership ranked below other marketable job skills servicemembers felt they’d gained in the military — 68 percent, versus personal responsibility (79 percent), teamwork (75 percent), the ability to work under pressure (72 percent) and accountability (69 percent).

At some point, veterans will have to adapt to the rest of the world.

“To see leadership down so far on the list really shocked me because I think the military has cornered the market when it comes to leadership training,” Williams says, noting that the results underscore the cultural differences between the military and the civilian business world.

“In the military, you are drilled on the importance of ‘selfless service’ from day one,” he explains. “Even though you may be leading a team on a difficult mission, you never talk about your leadership in ‘I’ terms. It’s always ‘we’ accomplished ‘our’ objectives as a unit.”

While that kind of thinking highlights collaboration — itself a marketable job skill — not emphasizing your contributions to a team’s successes can work against you in civilian job interviews, he says.

“There’s a real disconnect here, especially because servicemembers aren’t well-trained on how to take inventory of the unique accomplishments and abilities they have as individuals, and then showcase that to employers,” he notes. “I tell them that it’s OK to brag a little in job interviews — in fact, that it’s a good thing, which a lot of veterans find counterintuitive.”

Translating military skills

Not only should servicemembers learn to describe their contributions to a military team or mission, Williams says, but they also must learn how to translate their military work into civilian terms.

That can be hard because many military occupations don’t exist in the civilian world, such as civilian platoon sergeant jobs. But that doesn’t mean veterans who were platoon sergeants aren’t qualified for civilian employment, Williams stresses.

“I always tell veterans to remember the ‘three M’s’ when describing what they did in the military,” he adds. “How many men — or people — did you lead, what materiel did you use and how much money did you save? That translates very well to the corporate world.”

For example, Williams says, the skills required for the job of an Army squad leader in Afghanistan who led eight soldiers on a mission to secure a perimeter and help re-populate a civilian location are similar in many ways to the duties of a department manager in a large corporation.

“You were responsible for an armored troop transport — a piece of equipment worth millions of dollars — along with managing your own section of subordinates,” he explains.

“You also were in charge of setting up food service and shelters for soldiers and local civilians, meeting rolling deadlines and timetables and addressing problems.”

Making these types of associations is where the Military Translator Tool comes in. It uses algorithms to automatically make the types of skills conversions Williams describes, according to Igor Khayet, MBA, director of strategy for Phoenix Career Services.

“When you enter your MOS code, you’ll actually get three types of potential job matches — jobs that would use soft skills like leadership, personnel management and attention to detail — along with industry-specific job matches and any types of jobs that might be a near or exact duplicate of your military occupation,” Khayet explains.

For example, a combat engineer who was responsible for building pontoon bridges and temporary transport roads might use those skills in a civilian role as a civil engineer who designs highways, he notes.

Meanwhile, a quartermaster who procured supplies for an Army division could transfer those abilities to work as a retail buyer. A military logistics specialist could seek employment in the transportation industry.

Job market data

Besides a variety of job options, the translator tool gives current labor market data gathered in real time from job postings across the Internet that illustrate the hiring potential of each suggested occupation by region and specific location.

It also describes the required education and experience for the jobs, and provides salary ranges for each potential match, along with sample career paths that can help lead to more senior-level positions.

“This kind of job market data really lets you dig deeper when you’re determining where your military skills translate and even do some comparison shopping before you make a career choice,” Khayet says.

“You might find that you’re already qualified for one job, but another job that requires some additional education or training has a much higher potential salary. It can help you decide if you want to make the investment of time and money into a career path with higher earning potential, or just get to work right away.”

The interface allows users to directly compare the salaries, educational requirements and hiring potential of up to three civilian job titles simultaneously.

“Our goal for veterans is to help them facilitate a simple process for choosing a future career,” Khayet says.

Williams agrees. “At some point, vets will have to adapt to the rest of the world,” he says. “So we need to help them move into their next life phase and apply their military values to corporate America.”

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