Human resource (HR) managers in the civilian world are often baffled by the job language spoken by the military; many of them don't know what a DD214 form is or why it is so important to veterans. Therefore, private-sector HR staff sometimes need to be educated by veterans about the value of their military training and experience, and why it is relevant to the jobs they are seeking.
This lesson was one of many learned by veterans who attended The American Legion-sponsored Veterans Transition Workshop on Aug. 24 in Indianapolis, led by Kris Urbauer, General Electric's very first program manager for veterans initiatives.
A West Point graduate, Urbauer served as an Army engineering officer and saw duty overseas in South Korea and Bosnia. She also graduated from jump school and became a senior parachutist. Leaving the Army in 1995 as a major, Urbauer was recalled to active duty in 2001 and served one year at Ground Zero, conducting cleanup operations with the Army Corps of Engineers.
The GE Veterans Workshop covered key aspects of how veterans should manage their job transition, and offered success-building tips on résumés, phone conversations, interviews and networking. Following the main presentation, veterans paired off with HR specialists from GE for one-on-one help sessions.
Urbauer said one consistent problem she sees with veterans in the job market is that “they sell themselves short. They don’t verbalize or put into their résumé properly about what they did in the military. They don’t translate their experiences well enough to impress people in the civilian world. They don’t really think about all the important, responsible things that they did in the military.”
Military culture itself, Urbauer explained, is at least partially responsible for such a drawback in civilian life since it emphasizes group success over individual achievement. Many responsibilities in the Armed Forces — commanding a company, operating a nuclear reactor, flying high-tech aircraft, conducting electronic warfare — are noteworthy accomplishments. But veterans don’t really think of them as such “because to us, it’s normal. Whereas, in the civilian world, it translates into something very impressive. That’s a lot of responsibility but (veterans) don’t think about it in those terms.”
Kate Darmstadt, an HR manager for GE Appliances in Louisville, said transition workshops for veterans are important “because we need to support our troops. They have committed to our country and our freedom. We really need to give back to them and support them in this endeavor.”
"It’s a big transition to go from military to civilian life," Darmstadt said. "So the information that we try to impart is helping them translate their military experience into words and ideas that civilians will understand. And to help them market themselves better and make them stand out in that sea of a hundred or so résumés that we’re going to look at for any one job."
Urbauer said some veterans include too much military experience and jargon in their résumés, while others downplay it to the point where it looks like they never served in uniform. “Veterans’ résumés need to be somewhere in the middle, because most companies, especially this day and age, value military experience and kind of respect it, even if they don’t understand it. So if you take it completely off your résumé, I think you’re selling yourself short there, too.
Lack of confidence is also a problem with some veterans when talking about their active-duty experiences, Urbauer said. She has seen military retirees avoid eye contact and appear quite nervous during job interviews. “It’s a strange environment, and they’re not used to it, so they need to practice, and that’s what we try to help them with too.”
Highlights of advice from the transition workshop include:
- Know where you are and where you want to go for any job search. Veterans need to assess their capabilities and validate their employment goals. The “Three-Question Formula” helps: What do you want to do? What are you qualified to do? Where do you want to live?
- Start with a careful reading of the job description when choosing jobs to apply for. Why should the company select you? Only apply for openings that meet your qualifications. Don’t apply for multiple positions with the same firm because it indicates that you may not be sure about what you really want to do.
- Review your military career and focus on what work you enjoyed the most and which military skills are transferable to the civilian market. If you were a squad leader, then you were also a team leader. If you were a loadmaster, then you were also a project manager.
- Conduct an effective “recon” of civilian job titles and their specific responsibilities. One helpful online resource is the "Occupational Outlook Handbook" which matches skill sets to a wide variety of jobs. “At the end of the day, you want to make sure that you fit into their culture,” Urbauer said.
- Make résumés clean and easy to read, and no more than two pages. Get someone else to proofread it and eep in mind that the first look recruiters take at résumés lasts an average of six seconds.
- Prepare to talk your way through your résumé with stories, explanations and anecdotes that civilians can wrap their minds around. Avoid acronyms and military jargon. Get ready for the inevitable question: “What was your greatest achievement in the military?” To answer it, use the “STAR” system: situation, task, action and result. Move from the teamwork mode to the “what I did” mode.
- Use a cover letter as an opportunity to showcase your writing style if a company expects it. But today’s electronic environment has shifted some focus away from cover letters so don’t agonize over them because very few people are going to read them.
- Make sure your e-mail address looks and sounds professional. Check your Facebook page because potential employers will be looking at it; delete any content that may damage your chances of being hired. If you’re not on LinkedIn or some other professional social media, get on it.
- Adjust your résumé for each job applied for and make sure your really good material stands out on the first page. A military career is hard to fit into two pages, so you may want to create an extended résumé with more information to share after your interview.
- Be prepared for phone calls from HR offices at all times. Find a quiet place to talk, keep paper and pencil close by, be courteous, let a call go to your voicemail if necessary, and make sure that your voicemail sounds professional. Remember that every contact is an interview.
- Complete job applications neatly and thoroughly. Use precise dates and don’t lie or try to stretch the truth — it will catch up to you. Get permission from your references before you list them and make sure their contact info is current.
- Remember the Three C’s for your job interview: content, clarity and character. Discuss your qualifications in a way that will be clearly understood. Play up your outstanding character traits. Ask your own questions during the interview, get more job details, and explore the community’s quality of life.
- Network because it is critical to expanding your job horizons. It is not putting others “on the spot,” but an effective way to let others know you are in the job market. Don’t be afraid to articulate precisely what you’re looking for in the private sector.