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What Civilians Say About the Military Transition Conversation - Conclusion

I feel so bad for them, they’ve done so much and then it’s so hard to come home and be normal again.

Why are we even having this conversation? Why do we have to differentiate between veterans and other people? It’s like we’ve created a victim class. 

How is a veteran’s transition any different from when I switched careers? I had to start again at the bottom and work my way up too! Why should it be any different for a veteran?

These are just a few of the things I hear when I tell people that my company, Hire Served, exists to change the lives of servicemembers and their families by connecting them with meaningful jobs at small/medium-sized businesses who would love to hire them but don’t know how to connect with them. Since I respond to these so frequently, it occurs to me many others may be thinking it but not saying it. For brevity’s sake, I have divided these into three separate posts. To go back and read the first two, click here and here. Now let's dive into the second.

How is a veteran’s transition any different from when I switched careers? I had to start at the bottom too!

We live in a day and age where switching careers is no longer rare, so when discussing the challenges facing veterans changing jobs and often being required to start at the bottom of the totem pole, I hear this response. It’s the one that boils my blood the most and, candidly, makes it hard to maintain my composure. I, too, have changed careers not once, but three times. Yet, I believe the veteran transition deserves the attention we are giving it. Why? Because transitioning from banking to running a non-profit is certainly hard, but the veteran transition is different for the following reasons:

1) Veterans didn’t just choose a career that they later decided they were bored with. They signed a contract and took an oath handing their lives over to the American people for a set time, knowing that could result in their death. Let that sink in a minute. They didn’t decide they liked banking then switch it up because banking was more boring than they expected. They agreed to die for you, a complete stranger, if need be and now, lucky for them, they did not make the ultimate sacrifice. Now here they stand before you, alive and well, needing a new career because they’ve decided that it’s time for them to no longer continue to offer that sacrifice. This isn’t boredom, folks, this is selfless sacrifice for a time, which is what we have asked of them, followed by a desire to put their own needs or those of their families first instead of putting your needs first any longer. I don’t know how anyone can fault them for that.

2) For many military job functions, wearing a uniform is vastly different from any civilian role, while in the private sector there are many commonalities that ease transition. Military speak, lingo, posture, dress, ways of showing respect, and ways of carrying oneself are practically the antithesis to the way the private sector does things. So, transitioning from military culture to civlian requires a great deal of un-learning and re-learning. When I left the FBI, someone referred to me as a “neanderthal” when it came to the private sector (and I really don’t think I was that far removed). How much more do our veterans feel the gap? When you already work in the private sector, you already know most of the norms, you just need to learn the nuance of your new industry. Vets must learn it all. 

3) The concept of specialization is different between military adn private sector. In the military, you may be a specialist in one field and then be moved into an entirely different job function. The military believes with certain aptitudes, they can train you to do anything. Most military veterans leave the service with non-specific job search requirements and come across unfocused to recruiters. It’s just the opposite, they know that they can be trained to do anything a company needs, they just want to find a company they can believe it. In private industry, we become defined by a job title and role and we may jump from place to place doing that same role under a different banner. The military is exactly the opposite, servicemembers serve under a specific banner (The US Flag, then their branch of service) and jump from role to role doing any number of things under that banner. 

4) Fulfillment vs Purpose. The private sector introduces a new variable vets haven’t pursued before - fulfillment. Veterans careers had purpose because they were commited to the higher good and serving under the banner of the Americna Flag. However, noone ever asked if their role fulfilled them. When we coach veterans, we start with their Why - What fulfills them. We are frequently the first to ask that in their entire career. That goes for those who have served four years as well as those who are retiring. For vets, fulfillment has always come from their higher purpose, now it will come from doing a job for a company whose purposes may not be as clear. Because of this lack of clarity in purpose within the private sector, we ask vets to first think about their Why (rather than the company’s Why), to figure out what will fulfill them, then to find a place where they can do that work. This is an opposite approach to the one they’ve lived for so long, so it's an adjustment. 

There are many voices now talking about veteran transition and it can be overwhelming. Some may feel like we’ve overdone it. However, with 200,000 vets leaving the military each year as well as many who have left in previous years but didn’t transition effectively, I’d argue there’s room and need for us all. Until the time we see a shift from vets leaving the service and feeling lost, depressed and betrayed to veterans leaving the service and effectively transitioning to the private sector, our work will not be complete.

When that day comes, and Hire Served is no longer relevant or needed, I’ll gladly shut the doors and find my own new purpose. However, until then, we must all keep working to better understand veterans and help them find their place back in the society whose safety they have secured with their years of sacrifice.

Today, as this series concludes, I'd like to know from my private sector colleagues - what did you learn and what changes will you make as a result of this series?

The Author:  Jean South is a Marine spouse, daughter of two Army veterans, and former FBI Special Agent. During her career she has had the honor of working alongside our nation’s warriors. As the President and CEO of the Hire Served, Jean gives companies a competitive advantage to compete for veteran talent by helping bridge the culture gap between military candidates and HR.  

Read more about bridging the gap between veterans and employers in the Connector's Corner Blog.

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