Stephen Andersen often faced death as a Marine sergeant who was part of a helicopter crew flying above the most dangerous parts of Iraq evacuating wounded. But he found the combat and managerial experience he got in the military was meaningless when it came to finding a job in the good old USA.
When he left the service in June 2006 and decided to find a job, hiring managers would just brush aside his five-year military career, even though he often managed upward of 40 soldiers. All interviewers wanted to talk about, he says, was his brief stint in sales at a fitness club years before he entered the Marines.
“They didn’t look at my credentials as credible,” said Anderson, 26. "They think of the military as just a bunch of guys walking around in uniforms.”
No matter which side you’re on in the political debate over the war, there’s no denying that a regular paycheck and a fulfilling job will help our soldiers make a smoother re-entry into civilian life. That said, there are high hurdles they face when it comes to finding a job, everything from discrimination from prospective employers to not being able to drop the “Yes, Sir” mentalities once they take off their uniforms.
While many reservists will have their jobs kept open for them by employers, there are thousands of individuals who have known only military life and will have a tougher time transitioning. Some entered the military in recent years, right out of high school or college, did their tours and are ready for the unknown civilian work world. Others spent decades in the military and now find themselves over 40 and wondering how to live among the suit set.
About 250,000 active-duty individuals leave the military every year after retirement or one or two deployments, according to Chris Hale with Gl Jobs magazine. “This is a huge source of reliable labor,” he adds.
They are definitely reliable, having had to follow orders and fight for their lives, but can they write a resume, network for a job or master the interview process?
Eddie Trumble Jr. of Atlanta had a lot to learn. He retired from the Army in November and at age 42 found himself in the job market.
“I was nervous,” Trumble admits, even though he was able to get his bachelor's degree and an MBA while still in the service. And he faced a dead end when he searched for jobs online and sent out resumes.
He decided to get some job coaching and took interview skill classes that helped his confidence level, but one of his biggest problems was his resume. “When I tried to pass my resume to people at networking events I could tell, just by the look on their faces, that they really didn’t understand it,” he recalls. The problem: Too much military jargon and not enough details on what he actually did.
He enlisted the help of a retired Army lieutenant colonel who was now an executive at a major corporation and helped him revamp his resume.
The first step was to get rid of the military jargon.
Chief petty officer, for example, sounds impressive, but hiring managers are going to scratch their heads over just about any rank short of general. You need to spell out what your duties were and the leadership responsibilities you had. Use the job title “Manager” on your resume, and include your rank in parenthesis if you must.
For officers who had people under them, talk about military assignments more as projects that you were able to complete as a team. Include information about how you directed underlings. Don’t forget to include details about expensive machinery or computer systems you used or helped maintain.
One of the smartest things Trumble did, according to career experts, was to ask for help and network in any way he could to polish his image and get connections for possible jobs.
Through his sister, who is involved in real estate, he met an employee at HomeBanc Mortgage Corp. That connection ultimately led to a job for Trumble as a mortgage banker for the firm. His total time in the job-search game — 45 days.
For military folks, networking might be easier than you think. There is an endless reservoir of people to call upon that were also once in the military. Don’t be embarrassed to call all the buddies you made in the service, says Wally Adamchik, author of "NO YELLING: The Nine Secrets of Marine Corps Leadership You Must Know to Win in Business." “It’s just leveraging the people you know and using them to meet folks. That’s a foreign concept for a military person.”
And don’t forget to check out the myriad sources online. There are government-run sites to help ex-military personnel find jobs, and there are also independent sites for networking and job postings. Most bases offer transition services for ex-GIs, so go back to Uncle Sam and find out what you’re eligible for.
Troy Ponto, a former flight engineer in the Marines who retired last June, got an e-mail about a job at Advanced Technology Services, which maintains equipment for factories, through the transition assistance office at his military base in North Carolina.
Ponto faced a difficult career challenge. He wanted to be a manager but since he entered the Marines 20 years ago and never got a college degree, he was facing an uphill battle to get the title of boss even though he managed almost 70 men during his service.
He decided to take the get-your-foot-in-the-door approach and find a job that would offer him the opportunity for advancement. He is now the site coordinator for the company — not quite a manager yet — handling troubleshooting of equipment.
For Ponto, the interview process was a challenge as he tried to take what he did in the military and translate that into civilian terms.
“I recommend to anyone coming out to not be afraid of accepting an interview, even though it might not be your dream job, in order to get experience with interviewing,” he says.
You have to make sure the hiring manager understands the skills you can bring to the job.
“You can’t just say I’m drug free and I know how to follow orders,” Adamchik adds. “Employers today want people who can think.”
Talk about a specific assignment that shows how you were able to map out a plan and then execute it. Keep code names for military operations, or model numbers of helicopters or tanks to yourself.
Former military folks may have to pay some dues before they find just the right job. That might mean taking a short-term internship to learn the ropes.
You might consider offering to do the job for a few months with no strings attached, and put it in writing if the hiring manager is more comfortable with that, advises Brian Drum, a consultant who also writes a monthly career column for military.com. He also suggests going through a temporary staffing agency. Many companies often hire temps as full-time employee once they see an individual can get the job done.
Above all, don’t get disheartened when you hit some roadblocks initially. And don’t take just take any job out of desperation. Many veterans are entitled to unemployment benefits when they leave the military, so take some time and look for the right gig.
“That first job is always the hardest to find,” explains Drum. “Don’t settle on any job because it can derail you for a while if it’s not the right one."
Andersen, the Marine who was a helicopter crewman in Iraq, took a low-paying job for a home-improvement retailer in San Diego even though it wasn’t what he wanted. He ended up leaving after only a brief period because he felt his direct boss was anti-military and figured his chances of moving up the ladder were slim.
He now is a financial service specialist for a bank in Atlanta, and even though it’s not the exact job title he hoped for he sees room for advancement.
“I’m going to prove myself to my employer,” he says, “and see how high I can go.”