More than a third of companies surveyed by CareerBuilder are actively recruiting veterans. And almost half (47%) of the same employers have hired a former member of the Armed Forces in the last year.
These are somewhat encouraging numbers. But here’s the reality: For both employers and veterans, it’s difficult to know how to translate skills developed in the military to the business world and civilian careers.
There are tools out there to help transitioning veterans, including the feature in Emsi’s Career Coach that maps military occupation codes to standard occupation codes to identify which careers are similar to specific jobs held in the military.
It’s remarkable, though, what you can learn from veterans themselves when they share their experiences.
Emsi is privileged to have seven former members of the military on our team. What follows are the stories of four of them—what they did in the service, their struggles in making the jump to civilian life, and how they landed on their feet.
A common thread in what you’ll read, and in the data collected by CareerBuilder and others, is that the soft skills veterans possess is a huge benefit to the companies that hire them. Discipline, communication, critical thinking, problem solving—these are skills that many employers are desperate to find in workers, and which veterans have in spades.
For an air traffic controller, the thought of failure is not an option. On the fifth day of my deployment I had failed my team.
In 2007, four years after entering the Air Force and two years after I became a fully certified air traffic controller, I deployed at 22 years of age to Balad Air Base, Iraq—considered one of the most complex airspaces in the world at the time. On my fifth night I was instructed to get in Balad approach control, the most complex position. This was the final position in the facility, and doing my job well would prove to my team that we had a strong and complete team during this deployment.
As I working the approach position that night, I froze, questioning everything I was trained to do. I started putting aircraft into two different holding patterns, 50 miles apart with the aircraft a thousand feet above and below one another. I ensured my lowest aircraft was high enough to avoid a surface-to-air-missile. This was foolish thinking and more than likely doesn’t make sense, but stress leads to poor judgment. Around the time I had 15 aircraft in holding my supervisor leaned over to see how I was doing. I told him that I didn’t know how to bring them in safely in an efficient manner in this environment. I was bringing them in one at a time, which isn’t maintainable given we would we would push 300 to 400 aircraft a shift.
He immediately kicked me out of position and took over.
Eighty percent of those who enter air traffic control training fail out. I had completed training in 50% of the allotted time. Our training is intense. We are pushed and push ourselves to ensure we can handle any situation that arises. I trained myself to remember how each type of aircraft turned at any given moment, how much distance was required for each type of aircraft to properly descend, the minimum amount of transmissions required given any situation, etc. I forced myself to be able to handle any situation while remaining calm and collected—my voice was the only tool I had to establish trust between the pilot and I.
That night I failed not only myself but my team. Thankfully, no lives were lost. After a couple of weeks of proving myself in the other positions, my supervisor let me back in the hot seat to work Balad approach control. This time I would not fail. I understood that my job was to separate aircraft and provide a safe route that allows them to get to their destination.
For the next three to four hours, I had 12 to 15 aircraft consistently on frequency. I had a Russian pilot who correctly read my instructions back yet flew a completely different flight path; a C-23 Sherpa Army transport plane go non-radar, requiring me to separate that aircraft from others without being able to see his location; a C-17 flying from Baghdad to Balad claim he required F-16 support, which I questioned and found he needed them for no reason other than to impress Washington Redskins cheerleaders on a USO tour. Five minutes prior to landing, that same pilot needed to be put into a holding pattern; the base was attacked and we had 32 mortars on the runway. In addition, we would get frequent calls to block coordinates in a moment’s notice so an aircraft (F-16) can use it to go hot (i.e., protect troops from enemy fire).
At the end of my shift I had regained the trust of my team. I also regained trust in myself and the training I received.
In 2014 I separated from the Air Force. I made a complete career change, as I’m now a data scientist working in economic development. I have two master’s degrees, one in economics and one in international relations. Thus far I have been able to solve the problems given to me, yet that night still bothers me. In my mind I cannot fail. This mindset continues to push me. I am continuing my education, working on a PhD in mathematics. I want to ensure any problem a client has, I am able to provide an answer. My mindset has not faltered.
More importantly, my time in the military taught me that in order to succeed everyone must come together as a team and work toward the same goal. When we see a teammate (colleague) struggling we step in to help them, teach them, and give them another chance. You’re only as strong as your weakest link, and I was the weakest link on my team that night. They worked with me, taught me, and in the end we were a strong team. These principles and characteristics are necessary to succeed in business, and they are ingrained into all military members.
My time in the U.S. Marine Corps was highly influenced by my mother, who is Hungarian. She came to the U.S. in 1963, six years after her mother. My grandmother had to flee Hungary to escape the communist regime that was trying to kill her for helping to smuggle guns to freedom fighters who were revolting against communist Russia. As a young girl, my mother walked to school stepping over bodies in a country that was fighting for freedom.
She is all Hungarian and all American. She taught me to believe in my freedom enough that I would be willing to fight and die for it. Her life and her stories brought me to a place that I knew I had to lend myself to the service of this great nation.
So in 1995 I joined the USMC Reserve on an eight-year contract to stand ready in case our freedom needed defending. Thankfully during my time in the Marines I was never deployed.
For eight years I faithfully stood my post as a field artillery gunner, attaining the level of sergeant (E5). I was often placed in leadership positions responsible for the training and supervision of young Marines. As a young man myself I was often stretched to my physical, mental, and emotional limits, but it all aided to form the man and leader I am today.
Though field artillery does not translate well to a civilian job, service in the armed forces does. From the moment your raise your right hand and swear an oath to serve and protect your God and country you lend your mind to a new level of leadership. The type of leadership that serves God and country before self. The most successful and happy people I have ever met are those who are willing to give their lives in the service of others. This type of leadership cannot be taught in schools but is the result of a commitment that is lived out in the lives of the men and women of the armed forces.
Other skills I gained in my time serving in the Marine Corps:
I joined the Marine Corps in 2003 without a tremendous amount of direction in life. I wanted to be an infantryman because that looked really exciting, but my dad talked me into joining as an engineer so that I could learn something useful. At that point I assumed I would be a career marine or maybe use my engineer training to work in the oil field back home in Texas if that didn’t work out. Thirteen years (and two weeks) later, I’m obviously not an active duty Marine or an engineer in the oil field.
I joined when things were really hot in Iraq and nobody really knew what was going on. As such, there wasn’t a lot of time to hang out in the States going over all the technical details of being an engineer. Ten months into my enlistment I was on my way to Iraq as a 19-year old private first class. Among other things, I participated in the invasion of Fallujah in November 2004 and the first Iraqi elections, which were held in January 2005. I gained a tremendous amount of experience on the value of teamwork and getting through tough situations … and almost nothing related to engineering.
We returned to Camp Pendleton, California, in April 2005 and went right to work restructuring our organization. That summer I was promoted to corporal and got my first experience in leadership. That took me further from the technical aspect of being an engineer and introduced me to the challenges of managing people. My first real role as a non-commissioned officer was as our platoon training manager. My job was to make sure that everybody in the platoon (around 60 Marines) was current on everything from rifle training and fitness testing to dental checkups and academics. That was an interesting experience because we were scheduled to redeploy in a few months, and that meant there was a short time to check a lot of boxes.
Ten months after returning to Camp Pendleton, my platoon was on the way back to Fallujah in February 2006. That deployment lasted a year and was a lot less exciting than the first. The Fallujah invasion in 2004 was largely successful in completely destroying the city, so the bad guys were congregating more in other areas. During that deployment we worked on some rebuilding but focused more on solidifying our communications structures in the area.
Just a few months into that deployment and a year after my corporal promotion, I was promoted to sergeant. That put me in an entirely new leadership position. I was appointed as platoon sergeant, which is basically a mid-level management role. I took orders from five or six superiors and interacted directly with the remaining 55 or so marines in the platoon to execute on those. That was the greatest amount of responsibility I had ever dealt with (or have since). Since we were deployed to Iraq at the time, there wasn’t a learning curve or real opportunity to learn from mistakes. Confidence and decisiveness were imperative. In that role I learned how much confidence is really innate in people, and that only becomes discovered when it’s absolutely necessary.
In February 2007, we returned to Camp Pendleton. I was working on my application to Texas A&M University at the time and interested in leaving the uncertainty of military life for some new challenges back in the real world. My four years of active duty ended on August 27, 2007, with a 1,500-mile all-night drive to east Texas. Classes started the next week, so there wasn’t any time off to figure things out.
Moving back into civilian life, especially going into a huge university atmosphere, was kind of a shock. It took me a while to transition from being a platoon sergeant to just another seat in a classroom. I had to learn how to apply the things I’d discovered in the Marines to a totally different environment. The things I fell back on the most were, and remain, the confidence and decisiveness I learned from leading Marines.
Although I got a lot of great training, nothing about being an engineer really stuck with me. Just the same, I don’t really consider the self-discipline and responsibility that generally make military vets marketable a great part of who I am. I hate to shave. I love to sleep in. I skip out on work every chance I get.
What I took away from my military experience is that no certain job is too technical and no audience is too intimidating when you actually believe that. College was scary, but I graduated with honors and I’m writing my master’s thesis right now. I’ve transitioned from animal physiology and a career in the cattle industry to sales on Emsi’s community college team. I’ve worked independently as both a certified personal trainer and a photographer. I don’t necessarily credit my military experience for getting me where I am today—there are a lot of other influences that have helped me along the way—but I do apply the experience I got in facing challenges to everyday life.
My plan, starting my freshman year in high school, was to go into combat arms. I made that decision for various reasons: travel, greater experiences outside of my small hometown in Idaho, college money, my father was a tanker, etc. You’ll notice none of those reasons are even vaguely related to what my future career path would be. Candidly, I was in it for the experience and not a long-term strategic plan. Cut me some slack, though; I was 18 when I joined.
After spending three years as a tanker in the U.S. Army stateside and in the Bosnia region as part of SFOR-5 (Stabilization Force 5, a NATO peacekeeping rotation), my experiences were varied to say the least. From organization and planning my company’s arms room operations to patrolling to participating in Soldier of the Month/Quarter competitions, I gained a good deal of perspective and skills that would turn this short entry into a novel.
After exiting the service, I had one goal: to finish my bachelor’s degree in three years flat. I accomplished that goal, and I credit the three years of experience planning out operations and being disciplined enough to see the plan all the way through. My 18-year-old self did not have that disciplined approach, but my 21-year-old veteran self certainly did.
Afterward my girlfriend (now wife) and I decided to roll the dice and move to Chicago. Neither of us knew exactly what we wanted to be “when we grew up,” but we both had the discipline and motivation to make it work.
Upon moving to Chicago I applied to several sales positions through CareerBuilder.com. I had no direct selling experience, so the chips were stacked against me. What I did have, however, was the ability to discuss motivating/influencing, working hard, and seeing goals through. Several hiring managers did not appreciate those skills. They wanted prior experience. Ultimately, and coincidentally I suppose, I was hired by CareerBuilder (Emsi’s parent company) for an inside sales group.
The path to that first position was difficult. No sugarcoating that. I was not equipped to clearly articulate my military experience, and hiring managers were equally ill-equipped to decipher my message and apply it to their open positions. But through each interview I got better and ultimately landed that first professional position.
It’s easy to think that serving your country will land you a position. It won’t. Be proud that you served and work hard to translate those skills to an employer’s needs. And here’s the kicker: You need to apply some of that discipline and do it for yourself. The process of working through and articulating your skills and experiences will be very rewarding, and the more you do it, the better you’ll get as you march toward your next duty station.
Photo from Benjamin Faust/unsplash.com