Veterans in the Workplace: Why Being Different is a Good Thing!

CDR Carl B. Forkner, Ph.D., USN(Ret)

This is part one of a two-part series on the value of Veterans in the civilian workplace.

One of the ongoing topics for Veterans is how the civilian world differs from military life in many ways, making it difficult for some Veterans to reenter the civilian world following military service. From socialization to professional arenas, the challenges run the gambit of possibilities–as we are each different people who had differing experiences during our service, each area in which we settle presents its own set of characteristics as well because America is a country with a wide variety of cultural constructs. However, each of us brings with our military service many skills and coping mechanisms that are not taught in civilian institutions–it is with these advantages that Veterans can help energize and advance civilian organizations as well as themselves.

As members of the military, we undergo special training that provides skill sets that re not typically taught in civilian institutions–in fact, it would be difficult to do so within the constructs of our secondary and higher institution models today. These are the skills that are most often referred to as soft skills–those skills that can be applied in just about any scenario and enrich mission accomplishment, both military and civilian. Because these skills may apply across a broad spectrum of business, professional, and civic areas, they are skills that you should highlight when seeking your civilian career, building your professional network, and business relationships.

Five important skills were highlighted bu Khan (2013) as bringing key benefits to the civilian sector, both in terms of career prospecting and moving up the organizational ladder in a civilian position that you already have. As you read through these, along with their accompanying anecdotes, I believe that you will be able to develop analogies between what you did in your military service and how it can apply in your chosen civilian endeavors.

Flexibility. We have probably all heard it before, right? Semper Gumby. That comical green rubber character with a steel constitution (OK, wires that kept him standing and posed) that you could mold, bend, and pose in just about any position and he would not break…and could become “normal” again when you were done. We have all been put into scenarios where we had to give 100% and be able to think, compensate, and adjust rapidly as the scenario evolved. From the days of Charles Darwin, adaptability has been recognized as an essential component of growth and survival. Companies need people with that kind of adaptability–not a jack-of-all-trades, but people who can observe, orient, decide, and act (OODA Loop) in a changing business environment.

Teamwork. This is a natural for Veterans. Whether the teamwork is in a broad sense of the different divisions of your unit supporting each other or tightly focused like a SEAL Team, we act as a team in some respect every day. This is essential to success in the civilian world but finds limited development–at best–in civilian institutions. One of the main reason for this is that most in the civilian world develop with a “take care of myself first” perspective, not realizing that part of taking care of one’s self is helping the team succeed. Veterans have each others’ backs, even when they have disagreements on a personal level–mission comes first. We understand how to parse out responsibilities based on the qualities and skill sets of each member of the team to optimize the opportunity for mission success. We understand that listening to others is not threatening; rather, it can enhance our performance as a team. Companies want this kind of perspective because it blends personal and organizational success into a cohesive package.

Leadership. It will not take long for you to find that the civilian sector has a limited understanding of leadership at the entry- and middle-levels. Much of civilian organization relies on managers rather than leaders at these levels. In some organizations, there is actually very little leadership until you get to the C-level (CEO, COO, CFO, CIO) and even vice presidents are more managerial than leading. Veterans have the ability to assess a situation, develop courses of action to accomplish the goal(s), and then take action to lead the team to mission accomplishment. We understand that leaders may not be perfect, but that leadership is key to attaining goals. Because we have learned to follow leaders during our time in the military, we have the experience and understanding of leadership to enable us to become effective leaders in our civilian careers.

Commitment. For this area, I am taking a different approach than you might imagine. Yes, we understand commitment–the length of our enlistment, the decision to stay in for 20 years and make it a career and then retire, the vision and drive to go as high as we can promote, etc. We understand the need for sacrificing a few civil liberties and personal desires for the service and the best opportunity for the team to succeed. Employers want–and need–people who are willing to commit to achieving the goals and vision of the organization. Veterans have the ability to act in the basic necessities–showing up on time (or at all), being reliable, and communicating–in both successful and challenging times for the company. This is what companies need to survive, to evolve, and to grow. 

Technical Competency. Let’s face it–technology changes virtually every day in some way or another. Keeping up with technology is a must for businesses and can get very expensive without a plan. Veterans received training on changing technologies throughout their military service within pretty much every facet of military organizational work. Some Veterans have had the opportunity to learn how to operate some of the world’s most advanced technologies and innovations. Again, the ability to observe, orient, decide, and act enhances Veterans’ ability to adapt to new technologies and successfully implement them in the workplace. Whether you are an IT professional or not, every one of us works with technology in today’s climate and every business is a technology business.

Summary

In today’s evolving business and organizational climate, commitment no longer means what it did to our parents and grandparents–staying with a company for 20, 25, 30 years and then retiring. The average Millennial will make a job change as often as 6-8 times during their careers compared to 2-3 for prior generations, according to recent studies. Some companies have started embracing a military-type environment, where employees can make lateral moves within the company rather than leave for another company in order to gain a different, fresh perspective and sets of tasks. This also helps companies by developing potential future managers and leaders who have gained a broader understanding of how the company accomplishes its mission.

This is where the soft skills Veterans bring with them enhance organizational and corporate success. Unfortunately, many Veterans follow guidance from resume writers and career advisors who do not understand the skill sets that Veterans bring to the civilian sector and, as a result, those key competencies are overlooked. Make sure that you include those soft skills that helped you succeed in the military when you are seeking your civilian career–they are unique to our service, but they are critical to organizational success and often inaccessible from our civilian counterparts.

Semper Fortis!


Join me next week for part two of this series examining the key areas that can set Veterans apart from and above their civilian counterparts.


Khan, S. (2013). Highly valued traits the veterans can bring to work. SkilledUp. January 25, 2013. Retrieved from http://www.skilledup.com/articles/valued-traits-veterans-bring-to-workplace.

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