Military service gives veterans a broad set of skills that can be applied in the civilian workforce. Yet, countless veterans remain unemployed, or they land in part-time or minimum-wage jobs that pay far below what they were making in the military.

This happens for a variety of reasons. Recruiters and military veterans can run into communication difficulties because they use different vernaculars to talk about the same things. Civilian jobs may require additional education beyond standard military training. A veteran may not be able to find a civilian translation for their military occupational specialty (MOS).

What can veterans do to prove to employers they have the soft and hard skills necessary for success in the civilian workforce?

Lost in Translation

When applying for their first civilian jobs, veterans often don’t know how to present their hard skills in ways that appeal to civilian employers – or in ways that HR software can understand.

“Some MOSes, such as finance, quartermaster/logistics, aviation, and others have directly translatable hard skills in relation to the civilian sector,” says Adam Gonzales, founder of Silent Professionals, a job marketplace dedicated to placing veterans in quality civilian jobs. “Veterans from a combat arms MOS may feel greater difficulty in selling their skill set to find a meaningful and fulfilling job. The good news is that most veterans, regardless of MOS, possess critical and widely fungible skills that can serve well in any number of industries and job roles. The bad news is that veterans often ‘translate’ their skills in a way that falls flat in the corporate recruitment processes.”

Applicant tracking systems (ATSs) pose an especially big challenge here. ATSs screen resumes according to certain keywords to determine whether or not a candidate should advance in the process. If veterans don’t use these keywords – essentially, the language of civilian professional life – then their resumes will be filtered out of the running.

A veteran who repeatedly fails to reach the interview stage may be running into this problem.

“I hear it all the time from veterans: ‘I don’t know how my skill sets translate,’” Gonzales says. “This is where the core of the problem lies.”

When many people, veterans included, think of translating skill sets, they think of it as a direct one-to-one match. The military uses one word, civilian companies use a different word, and translation means replacing the military language with civilian language.

trainBut according to Gonzales, that isn’t the whole picture.

“Translation is actually a higher form of two-way communication requiring a degree of fluency in two languages, including cultural and contextual implications,” he explains. “For example, if the job requisition to which you are applying is a business development role at Company X, do you fully understand what this means within the context and culture of Company X? While the job description may be seemingly written in plain English, chances are unless you’ve worked for that company in the past, you might interpret the description differently than what Company X is actually seeking. The fact is that every company has its own language, culture, and historical contexts.”

Successful skill translation takes this context into account, using the company’s language and culture to send a clear, direct message about what a candidate can do for the organization.

At the Interview

Interviewers may not have much experience interviewing military personnel, so it’s important for recently separated veterans to present themselves in a polite and professional way in the interview room.

In essence, it falls on the veteran to be the translator.

“Veterans bring many strengths to the table, and while you should directly answer the interviewer’s questions, it’s important that you give the interviewer deeper insight into your own rationale and values,” Gonzales says.

For example, consider the different ways in which civilians and military personnel define “leadership.” For civilians, Gonzales says, the leader is simply the person in charge. For veterans, however, leadership is not a role but “a blend of character traits, behaviors, and actions every service member is expected to develop and demonstrate every day throughout their careers.”

“Think this is a weak sales point to a recruiter? Think again,” Gonzales says. “There is not a recruiting team out there that isn’t discussing the challenges of leading and managing millennials in the workforce. Directly answering your interviewer’s questions while providing contextual experience-based examples will demonstrate your leadership abilities and values, which will certainly set you apart from other candidates who may largely lack these types of experiences.”

Veterans tend to be self-assured and confident in their skills and abilities, so providing such examples shouldn’t be a problem. However, it’s important not to come off as condescending in the interview.

“Don’t frame your views in a way that portrays veterans as better than non-veterans,” Gonzales says. “Everyone has a unique set of skills, and veterans bring their own unique set which can be valuable – just as civilians bring theirs.”

Know What Resources Are Available

Fortunately, veterans these days can turn to a variety of resources when they run into translation problems.

tree“If you feel overwhelmed or even unqualified for a job when reading through a job description, veteran networks and social media make it easier for transitioning veterans to reach out to people who work for the company and/or department in which you may be interested,” Gonzales says. “Don’t be afraid to reach out directly to people who work for the company to better understand the context and culture of the role in question. Be professional and ask for clarity in areas where you are unclear.”

Gonzales recommends asking about required degrees and certifications, the role’s requirements, challenges the company/department currently faces, and recent organizational successes. Gaining insight into these things will give a veteran stronger understanding of how the company views the role and what it looks for in candidates. This, in turn, allows the veteran to tailor their resume and interview answers accordingly.

Other resources veterans may want to consider include vocational rehabilitation programs offered by the US Department of Veterans Affairs; Military.com’s skills translator, designed to help veterans understand how their MOSes apply in the civilian world; and Troops to Teachers, which assists veterans in obtaining their teaching certifications. In addition, many veterans’ groups and local governments offer counseling for veteran job seekers.

“Remember that you are not alone,” Gonzales says. “I cannot stress enough how important it is to reach out to fellow veterans if you’re at an impasse. But meet everyone at least halfway. Make the effort to help yourself, and others will be able to do the same.”

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