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Tour of corporate duty: career management.

Military veterans are entering the job market in record numbers. Developing the right job-search strategy is key to a successful transition.

"MY FIRST JOB INTERVIEW WAS SCARY," ADMITS Don Spears, a 30-year Navy veteran, who served as a master chief aviation storekeeper before retiring last year. "In the Navy, interviewing was just a formality. When you were granted a transfer or began a new tour, it was because you already had the job," adds Spears, whose job-search strategy included giving himself 45 days to find a new position. He found one in two weeks. By following some tried-and-true methods and developing a plan, military personnel can make a smooth transition into the civilian world.

A 1996 Department of Defense report states that even after military downsizing (which has already reduced the forces by more than 600,000 since 1990), an average of 250,000 service members will separate from the military each year. Transition Assistance Programs have been established to better prepare service members and their families. In 1994, military personnel made over 700,000 visits to these transition offices for counseling and employment assistance services. These programs have also saved the Department of Defense as much as $150 million a year in unemployment insurance costs.

But how well equipped are the service members for civilian employment, According to the Department of Defense, military personnel face three distinct disadvantages: most have never competed for a civilian job; a large majority have led lives separate from civilians and therefore have not established networks; and many have been or are stationed great distances from job markets of interest.

Conversely, military personnel do have some advantages: they are, on average, better trained, educated and disciplined than their competitors. Many civilian employers agree that veterans make up a talented pool of potential employees and have valuable qualities to offer.

"Junior military officers have proven to be an excellent pool of leadership talent," says Jonathan Brasfield, organization and staffing specialist for the Bloomington Plant Operations division of General Electric. "They bring strong project management skills, have a team orientation and manage conflict and change well." Here's the S.T.R.A.T.E.G.Y.


One of the keys of getting and keeping a job is to get on the Job-search bandwagon early. Charles Rivers, a former marine officer who for the past two years has headed Allstate Charles Rivers Agency in Jacksonville, North Carolina, wasted no time after his separation from the Marines. Rivers, who retired as a master sergeant in 1990, had started preparing for his military separation in 1988 by working toward his bachelor's degree in business at the University of Maryland.

"I was a rifleman and I knew that no one was going to legally hire a hit man," he says. By going to school full time at night, Rivers, now 40, earned his degree in 1992 and was recruited right out of college by the U.S. Navy Hospital as a contracting officer. "Don't wait for the last minute before taking steps toward preparing for military separation," he advises. "Even waiting six months to a year will put you at a disadvantage." After 18 months with Jefferson Pilot Life Insurance Co., which he joined after two years with the Navy Hospital, Rivers was selected from a group of 87 candidates to head an Allstate office.

Planning ahead also prepared him financially. Rivers started saving and investing for his second career six years before his military retirement. Although he wasn't sure what he'd do next, he knew he wanted financial constraints to be the last thing to deter him from following his dreams.


Communication and interpersonal skills, along with teamwork, are high on the list of what employers want. Spears, who had done everything in the supply field from originating paperwork to managing entire operations, recalls, "It was difficult, but I knew I had to talk `civilian' if I was going to get across to employers how important my military experience was."

"Ex-military members must be able to demonstrate their past performance through clearly articulated examples. We want to know what projects they managed and the value they added to the organization," says Brasfield. "Excellent communication and interpersonal skills are a must. From a human resources perspective, we ask, `Has this candidate truly made the transition from a directive management style to a participatory one?'"

There is no question, service members have the skills and experience emploYers want. Communicating those skills to employers is a different story. Eliminate jargon, war stories and acronyms from speech and written tools (resumes, cover letters, etc.) For example, instead of saying "battalion," keep it simple and state the number of soldiers in your division. No matter how important something is, if a person does not understand the terminology, it might as well be left unsaid.


To compete in today's job market, it's critical to know what employers are looking for. Spears, who retired from the Navy in November, used the San Diego installation's job assistance services to find work. He also increased his scope by using the public library and reading newspapers and other literature about the job-search process.

"Attending the job-search workshops and classes really gave me a heads up on what to expect in the civilian world," says Spears, 49, who works as a supply technician at the San Diego office of Management Consulting Inc. (ManCon), which provides supply and logistical personnel to the government. "The access to computerized job banks, the Internet, job-search books and one-on-one sessions with transition and job-search specialists made the difference." Knowing what was out there helped him focus his job search and make the best fit.

Effective research can uncover data that make military personnel more competitive in the civilian workforce. A survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, indicates that 58.8% of entry-level hires in 1994-95 had co-op or internship experience. Almost 70% of manufacturing new hires started with workplace experience-something military members already have.


Look at the big picture researching an industry. Don't just look at the facts, read between the lines. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the five industries with the fastest projected job growth will be in health services, home health care, computer and data processing and social and business services.

On closer inspection, the increase in health care personnel will likely warrant a demand for employees in computer technology, human resources, communications and other support personnel.

Spears researched beverage, airline, production, construction and aviation companies to see where his light industry supply skills might transfer. Another creative hint: Get into an organization and establish yourself using a secondary skill and then later, move into a position where you can use your primary skill. This also works in the reverse and networking can be the key to unlocking those doors.


Networking is nothing new military personnel. Says David Mitchell, a job assistance counselor for Right Associates in Vienna, Virginia who coordinates pre-separation seminars at the Army base at Fort Bragg, North Carolina: "Military people network every day, they just don't call it that. For them, it's knowing who tO go to in order to make things happen." Job-search networking is simply an act of obtaining information for a specific reason. Here are a few guidelines:

* Talk to everyone, not just to people you know. Anyone who is already doing what you want to do (or knows someone else who is) can provide valuable information about the occupation.

* When networking, never ask for a job, ask for information. People are flattered when asked for advice, suggestions, or hints--if you ask for a job, it may turn them off.

* Have a one-to-two-minute "script" in your head for introductions. People value their time; don't waste it giving your life history. If you're doing all the talking, you can't be getting any information.

* Have a goal in mind for each contact. Know what you are looking for, and make sure the other person does, too. If you lose focus, so will they. Make a note of each contact to help with your follow-up efforts later.

* Follow up. No matter how willing your contacts might be to help, you will not be at the top of their priority list. A quick phone call to touch bases is all it takes to get the information they were meaning to call you about.

Spears recalls networking with friends from coast to coast, and says, "It was the follow-up with a networking contact that got me my present job."

Teria Sheffield, 35, the interim assistant registrar at Savannah State University, didn't realize the importance of networking when she voluntarily left the Army in 1993. "Military life is sheltered. As a captain, I was accustomed to a more structured environment, and it's just not the same in the civilian world. Don't let rejection affect your feelings of self-worth." Employers simply feel more comfortable with persons who have been referred to them than they do with someone who just shows up on the doorstep. "As long as someone meets the job requirements, they don't have to be the best qualified to get the job," she adds. "You've got to get your foot in the door by networking."


Having several marketable skills gives job seekers more options and employers "more for the buck." Employers like to see education and training that substantiates work experience. Whether through professional certification or professional and trade association memberships, important steps toward professional development can make a difference.

In 1994, service members received $134 million in tuition assistance for college, according to the 1996 Defense Report. Preliminary 1995 figures show a slight increase in the level of funding. Of the more than 250,000 service members who make the transition to civilian employment, 22% have some college credits, while about 19% have at least one college degree. "The military prepared me by giving me skills, education and opportunities to excel," says Spears. "I took every chance I could to take specialized courses in my field as well as computer courses to stay on track with the age of automation."


Sheffield insists you can never be too prepared. "Practice every time you have an interview, assess how you did and make efforts to improve for the next one."

Hunter Hopson, the chief construction manager at the Goddard Space Flight Center for Parsons Corp., an international engineering construction company in Pasadena, California, started preparing for the civilian workforce five years before his 1996 military retirement. He knew that with 27 years in service, he had to make some adjustments. "There. are different rules and a different language in the civilian world, you have to learn to adjust to them," says Hopson. "Start interfacing with civilians early on to give yourself the opportunity to practice effective [civilian] communication without the risk of losing a job offer. Know what to expect from interviewers and what they expect of you." Hopson also suggests interviewees research the company.

In addition, Hopson says it's a good idea to stay in contact with people you admire as your military career progresses. "Prepare interview responses that don't only focus on what you have done, but what you can do," he says. "I learned that we have to use the principles of the skills we gained in the military as an application to the civilian way."

Below are some interviewing tips:

* Prepare and practice for interviews. Behavior-based interviews are designed to demonstrate your creativity in problem-solving, so be prepared to cite specific examples, in nonmilitary jargon.

* Have a positive attitude even if you were separated from the service involuntarily. Never "bad mouth" former supervisors. Employers will think you'll do the same to them.

* Use quantities in your examples, but don't be overwhelming. Military people are used to being accountable for millions of dollars worth of equipment, but this can pose a threat to an interviewer who does the same thing but on a smaller scale.

* Don't insist on using "Sir" or "Ma'am." Listen for how the interviewer introduces him- or herself, and remember the name.

* Don't expect to start at the top. Civilians have their own hierarchy, just like the military.

* Never wear your uniform to any employer contact, including job fairs. This includes "pieces" of your uniform, no matter how "normal" you think it may look. This goes double for military eyeglasses, raincoats, neckties and shoes.

* Update your wardrobe and try on the entire suit several days before the interview. Overall appearance is the key to a good first impression.

* Determine whether you want to use the word "retirement." Civilians have their own ideas about it, considering they retire much later in life.

* Never leave the interview without knowing the next step. Even if they say they'll call you, ask if and when you can call them back.


Sheffield, who is also the Veterans' Affairs coordinator at the university, believes you are your own best career manager. "It's OK to seek help, but evaluate it and adjust it according to your own aspirations," she says. These former service members who successfully transitioned into civilian employment suggest seeking out and utilizing all available resources.

Says Rivers: "Ex-military personnel must have the inner drive to do something else with their life. If they stop dreaming, even with all the preparation in the world, they won't have the motivation to do more."
COPYRIGHT 1997 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
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Title Annotation:25th Anniversary of the B.E. 100s; veterans entering the civilian job market
Author:McBride, Pamela
Publication:Black Enterprise
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jun 1, 1997
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