By Jake Lowary, The Tennessean
New research suggests Army veterans leaving the service face sometimes “soul-crushing” realities when they try to find civilian jobs, and those hiring them are empathetic and want to hire them, but say the veterans are often unprepared for the job recruiting process.
The study indicates veterans are sometimes led to believe they will have smooth transitions to civilian jobs, but civilian hiring managers are often put off by the veterans’ attitude and lack of preparation for work in the civilian sector.
The study, authored by Fred Mael, who runs Mael Consulting and Coaching in Baltimore, Maryland, indicates sometimes opposing positions on how best veterans can transition into jobs after their military service.
Problems within both the Army and the civilian job sector pose challenges for the transition, the study found.
“Veterans who thought that they were capable of doing anything and would be in high demand for significant, six-figure positions learned that they had to lower their expectations and take lower positions,” the study states. “They expressed the wish that someone had provided them with a more realistic view of the competitive nature and significant challenges of the civilian job environment.”
The yearlong qualitative study sponsored by the City of Clarksville, Montgomery County government and two state agencies involved 288 people, including hiring managers and veterans from 20 private and governmental organizations in Middle Tennessee. They participated in focus groups to discuss veteran transitions.
“It was felt that society, in trying to compensate for the previous lack of attention to veterans’ needs, has bent over backwards and broadcast the message that all veterans deserve jobs and preferential treatment,” the study states.
The study says state and local laws allowing preferential treatment for veterans reinforced a “sense of entitlement” among some veterans, a subset of whom believed they should be given a job just because they served in the military.
“The message they conveyed was that because of their service to their country, they deserved a job regardless of whether they were prepared or qualified,” the study says.
The study found that employers value some qualities that veterans broadly exhibit, like teamwork, adaptability and focus on team objectives. But the results also show that many veterans lack realistic expectations about their roles, and have poor interviewing skills and resumes.
“Veterans may find that they have many relevant skills but discover that it is difficult to articulate the relevance of those same skills,” the study says.
Inside the organizations, the study points to poor training in the Army before soldiers leave the military and a lack of acceptance from some civilian managers.
“Some (veterans) felt ill-informed and bolstered by false hope, which made the transition even harder,” the study says. “They felt it was an injustice not to provide transitioning soldiers with a realistic view of what civilian employment will look like.”
Many veterans were critical of the Army’s transitional program, now known as Soldier for Life-Transition Assistance Program (SFL-TAP), which at least one participant described as a “a checkbox approach,” according to the study.
“There was a near-universal view that the program did not prepare veterans for networking in the civilian workplace,” the study found.
Army fighting leaner budget, timeline
Will Wyatt, human resources director for the City of Clarksville, said federal budget reductions forced major installations like Fort Campbell to dramatically change the way they help soldiers prepare for civilian jobs through SFL-TAP.
He said leaders there have done well to adjust to those changes, which reduced the time soldiers spend preparing for jobs by half — from a year to only six months.
“They’re following orders,” he said.
President Donald Trump has called for $54 billion in additional military spending, but much of that money would go to equipment.
Meanwhile, the state won’t say what it will do. Tennessee Veterans Services Commissioner Many-Bears Grinder said the results reinforce what the state agency has seen.
“There are no shortages of websites, federal, state, local and nonprofit partners who want to help veterans reintegrate into the civilian work force or classrooms,” she said. “However, the collective efforts have led to an overabundance of information that is challenging to navigate without some expertise and mentorship.”
Bears-Grinder said it was “premature” to say what the state might do to address the issues made evident in the research.
Reaction mixed to findings
Wyatt was a driver of the research project, and said the idea to study how soldiers transition came to him at a conference and a resume he saw once, full of jargon and Army acronyms.
“Frankly, it was awful,” he said.
Wyatt said that case and many others are similar — much of the experience included in veterans’ resumes is attractive to job recruiters — but it often falls on deaf ears.
“But it did not translate at all,” Wyatt said. “That was the first thing a job recruiter is gonna look at.”
Chris Cravens, a former Marine infantryman with multiple deployments and now the national director for talent acquisition for RecruitMilitary, said the challenge in preparing soldiers and the employers hiring them is two-fold.
“The ease of access to viable resources post-transition can be difficult whether going back to a one-stoplight town or metropolitan city,” Cravens said. “The agencies supporting those resources are typically not measured on the success of the veteran or longevity of the position in which they helped them fill.
And while employers boast of hiring veterans, they don’t often accurately say what positions veterans find themselves in.
“There is certainly nothing wrong with entry level, especially for a junior enlisted servicemember, while many transitioning are told to search for mid-level managerial positions that are not readily available,” Cravens said.
Cravens also said there is a “disconnect” between veterans and employers.
“The disconnect is that the majority of companies want to hire veterans for their soft skills, applicable to any role they may need filled,” he said. “The teamwork, dedication, drive, mission accomplishment, resiliency are all things they are hiring for which many veterans are not speaking to in their resumes or during interviews.”
Wyatt said the study will help all parties understand the challenges each side of the issue faces, and hopefully lead to more quantitative research.
“Hopefully education is the biggest piece of this,” Wyatt said.
Jake Lowary covers veterans and military affairs for the USA Today Network. Reach him at 931-237-1583 or follow him on Twitter @JakeLowary.