Brian Brooks sat against the wall, listening intently to instructions for his next mission. After 20 years of working for team Army, the...
FORT RILEY, Kan. — Brian Brooks sat against the wall, listening intently to instructions for his next mission. After 20 years of working for team Army, the next task was all his.
Brooks was trading his uniform and procurement job for civilian clothes and work schedules. Since 1987, he had reported each day for duty, knowing there was a job waiting for him.
“For some of us, it’s a different world. It will make you a little nervous,” said Brooks, 38, who’s retiring after 20 years.
The disconnect between life in the active-duty military and the civilian job market is not unusual. For the nearly 250,000 who leave the military annually, selling themselves to employers isn’t something they have had to worry about for years, if ever.
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More and more midgrade officers and enlisted soldiers are leaving as multiple deployments to war take their toll on them and their families.
Despite increased incentives, including huge bonuses from the Army, many are opting to test the civilian job market, even if they aren’t sure how to do it.
For the Department of Defense, having thousands of unemployed veterans is costly. In 2006, the agency paid $518 million in unemployment benefits, and $365 million through the first three quarters of 2007.
Veterans say it’s difficult to go from a culture where the emphasis is on “we,” as in the squad or platoon, to “me,” as in a qualified applicant.
“It’s lost in the translation, this inability of the veteran to communicate all of their skills to an employer in a way that is meaningful,” said Tom Aiello, vice president of military.com, a division of Monster Worldwide.
A recent survey by military.com found that 76 percent of veterans said they felt unable to effectively translate their military skills in civilian terms; 72 percent said they were unprepared to negotiate a salary.
The survey heard from 287 recruiters and hiring managers from firms across the country, as well as responses from 4,442 veterans. Responses were gathered through telephone interviews and online questioning.
“Because their résumés and experiences differ from traditional candidates, it can be challenging for hiring managers to immediately appreciate the value they bring,” Aiello said.
Brooks was responsible for getting resources to train teams sent to Iraq and Afghanistan to work as advisers. It meant working with suppliers and contractors for clothing, weapons, food and anything else needed to complete the mission.
In the civilian market, Brooks could expect to do similar tasks in factories, warehouses or retail stores.
There is some help for veterans.
A 1994 federal law requires the Department of Defense to help prepare service members for civilian employment.
At Fort Riley, Kan., soldiers use the Army Career and Alumni Program to build résumés, search want ads and prep for interviews. The course takes a week, but services are available after the soldiers leave the Army.
Many don’t realize they are qualified to hold civilian jobs until they start putting their skills on paper, said program manager Glennwood McLaurin, a former air-defense artillery soldier.
“I wondered, ‘How am I going to find a job shooting down airplanes?’ But I had other skills,” he said.
Veterans may apply for jobless benefits the same way workers at a steel plant may if they lose their job, depending on each state’s rules. But those benefits last only so long, meaning veterans often take jobs for which they are overqualified because of difficulty getting a foot in the door.
Some people suggest turning to big ex-military employers, such as defense conglomerates, retailers and law enforcement.
Union Pacific has been named the top military friendly employer by G.I. Jobs, a publication aimed at soldiers moving to civilian life. The Omaha, Neb.-based railroad hires veterans to fill various jobs from maintaining the engines and cars to managing the millions of tons of freight it handles each day.
Spokesman Mark Davis said about 25 percent of Union Pacific’s new hires in 2006 had military experience.
Working outdoors can be a big draw, he said, “and being able to work on their own, while also on a team to move this country’s freight from one coast to the other.”
Six months before he left the Army, Darren Doherty started looking for a job, sending out résumés and applying through the Internet. He earned an engineering degree from West Point and wanted a career in that field in his home state of Texas.
To help him connect with firms, Doherty turned to The Lucas Group — an executive-search agency that has a reputation among ex-military personnel and specializes in finding jobs for retired officers and enlisted soldiers.
After several weeks of sending out applications and going to interviews, he landed a job with Dannenbaum Engineering in Houston, whose chief executive is a retired Army colonel.
A week and a half after he left the Army, he started in Houston.
“The civilian work force can be a scary place when you’ve learned to enjoy the security of the military,” said Doherty, 31, a former captain and Army aviator.
Andrew Hollitt, an executive senior partner at Lucas Group, said intangibles such as leadership skills in veterans like Doherty make them attractive candidates, regardless of the job market.
But military.com found most employers don’t have a complete understanding of the skills and talents veterans offer.
Veterans have to overcome perceptions of employers who don’t see that they have talents in motivating others, leading them through a task or managing personnel with complex personalities.
“They are smart, hardworking and have a good moral compass,” Hollitt said.
For some young soldiers, the Defense Department’s mandatory training course on civilian life may end up persuading them to stay in the military. McLaurin said he sometimes advises people to re-enlist and get additional training.
“I’m not shy about telling the soldiers that they don’t have the skills to get that job,” he said.
But after four years in artillery, Derrick Rima, 24, said he is ready to leave in July. “I’m kind of through with manual labor right now. I want to sit at my desk and pay somebody to mow my lawn,” Rima said. “I’m ready to do whatever it takes to make that happen.”