December 8, 2017

Do Veterans Need College Degrees to Enter the Civilian Workforce?


Veterans usually leave military service with a stockpile of G.I. Bill benefits to help them pursue an education — but should they use these benefits?

This question plagues many veterans as they struggle to find meaningful work upon exiting the military. Once upon a time, military service could completely replace a college degree in the corporate world, but those days are now behind us in many fields.

“More often than not, I didn’t even make it past the automated algorithm on an online application form,” says Adam Gonzales, founder of Silent Professionals, a job marketplace dedicated to placing veterans in quality civilian jobs. “Without a college degree, I would either get an automated rejection email stating that a degree was a prerequisite for the job in question or, in some cases, could not proceed with the online application beyond that point. This can be extremely disheartening to anyone, especially a veteran who may have had a stellar career in the military.”

If You’re Not Sure, Ask

That’s not to say that all veterans must go to college straight out of the military if they want to work. In some fields, military training is enough and translates quite directly. Construction, supply and logistics, and transportation are a few examples.

For most areas of employment, however, figuring out how military skills apply can be less obvious.

“Oftentimes, veterans get tired of the rejections and hit a point where a degree seems like an unavoidable box to check off a recruiter’s checklist,” Gonzales says. “Don’t get me wrong: Education is always a valid pursuit, regardless of veteran status, but it is important to pursue a college degree for the right reasons.”

Pursuing a degree today requires time, dedication, and money, which can take a toll on your personal life and your family, Gonzales says. For this reason, he cautions against rushing into a degree simply for the sake of employability.

“What degree program are you planning on pursuing and why? What do you hope to achieve once you receive your degree? If the answers are generalized around being more marketable for a job, then I’d recommend a tactical pause to reexamine how you’re interpreting ‘marketability,'” Gonzales says.

If you dream job is in a field that absolutely requires a degree — like engineering or medicine — then Gonzales says go for it.

“But if your dream job has less direct or obvious reasons why a degree is required and you feel you are capable, it is worth reaching out to a recruiter or someone who works for a company directly to understand the job requirements better,” Gonzales says. “There are far more available jobs that don’t truly require a college degree than ones that do.”

Asking the right questions in advance of putting in an application can save veteran job seekers significant frustration by letting them know if they are at least qualified to apply. If vets speak to recruiters in advance of applying, they also get the opportunity to explain how their military careers qualify them in place of a degree.

“Many veterans have the very skills and knowledge employers may be seeking — as well as real-world experience — but don’t have this knowledge packaged neatly under the guise of a degree,” Gonzales says. “This reiterates the importance of the translation process for veterans. A recruiter often doesn’t have the time, context, or ability to translate your experiences to a job, so you need to be the one to help them in that process.”

So, should veterans get a degree? The answer is: maybe. Figure out what you want to do first, and then find out what you need to get there.

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Jason McDowell holds a BS in English from the University of Wisconsin-Superior and an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. By day, he works as a mild-mannered freelance writer and business journalist. By night, he spends time with his wife and dogs, writes novels and short stories, and tries in vain to catch up on all of those superhero television shows.