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Strong Job Skills Make Veterans Hot Hires

Rebecca Koenig

After eight years working as a generator mechanic at MacDill Air Force Base, William Velazquez-Morales was ready for a change. But he had trouble finding a satisfying civilian job.

"Transitioning out of the military was difficult. I went from job to job," he says. "I didn't have certain certifications; I didn't have an education."

When a friend told him about NS2 Serves, a free training program designed to prepare veterans for technology careers, "it seemed too good to be true," Velazquez-Morales says. "I'm very guarded and don't want anyone taking advantage of my military benefits. I don't like handouts."

Still, he applied. He was accepted and spent three months studying business integration and accounting full time. He also picked up project management and public speaking skills and participated in job interviews with large companies. At the program's end, Velazquez-Morales secured a job as an accounting solutions analyst with Deloitte, a job he pairs with service in the Georgia National Guard.

Thanks to the program, his perspective has changed.

"It's not a handout. It's an opportunity to really apply these skills you learned in the military to be successful," he says.

Veterans like Velazquez-Morales have many options for kicking off civilian careers. These days, employers are enthusiastic about hiring veterans thanks to the low unemployment rate and corporate "enlightened self-interest," says retired Brig. Gen. Gary Profit, senior director of military programs at Walmart.

"This is arguably the largest talent-rich pool in the world. Who wouldn't want them to join their teams?" Profit says. "We know it's important to our communities and customers as well."

By tapping into education resources and learning how to sell their skills, former service members can take advantage of the keen interest civilian hiring managers have in recruiting them as workers.

[Read: How to Land an Entry-Level Job.]

Acquiring Education

Nearly a third of veterans have only a high school degree, a rate similar to that of the non-veteran population, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Veterans are more likely than non-veterans to have earned an associate degree (12.5 percent to 9.4 percent, respectively) and slightly less likely to have earned a bachelor's degree (18.6 percent to 19.9 percent).

Employers say veterans of all education levels make attractive job candidates because of their military training.

"The nation makes an incredible investment in the growth and development of leaders in the military," Profit says. "The army probably trains and educates people as well or better than anyone else does, as do the other services."

Depending on his or her experience and education, a veteran looking for work at Walmart might find a job at a store, transportation office or corporate office, Profit says. At T-Mobile, someone without a college degree might do well starting out in a retail role, which has structure and a clear career path, according to Donna Wright, senior manager of military and diversity sourcing strategy.

Still, veterans would be remiss not to take advantage of the financial resources for higher education to which they're entitled by the " Forever GI Bill," which took effect in August 2018, says Zachary Iscol, Marine Corps veteran and CEO of Grid North Group, a portfolio of companies that serve former service members.

"Use your benefits. You can go to an Ivy League school or top state school for free and have most of your living costs paid for while you're getting your education," he explains. "It's definitely something that's achievable and it will help you on the job market."

[See: Best Colleges for Veterans.]

Veterans looking for alternatives to traditional higher education have options, too. Nonprofits such as FourBlock and NS2 Serves run training programs designed to quickly prepare veterans for civilian careers.

Veterans may be "a little scared to put a stop on life and go to a training where they don't know where they're going to end up," Velazquez-Morales says. But he recommends taking advantage of opportunities to learn with fellow veterans.

"You really learn to enjoy the times you're with your military brothers, collaborating and helping each other out," he says. "There's a lot of camaraderie."

Avoiding Underemployment

At 2.9 percent, veterans had a lower unemployment rate than non-veterans (3.5 percent) in October 2018, according to the Department of Labor. But that low figure doesn't mean all veterans are working in fulfilling jobs.

"A lot of veterans are still underemployed. They may not fully understand how their skills translate into a corporate environment," Wright says.

Job search platforms have devised ways to address this problem. One such platform, CareerBuilder, has a new feature that allows service members to find job openings relevant to their personal military occupational specialty codes, which the armed forces use to organize workers.

But veterans needn't limit their civilian job searches to positions that correspond exactly to military duties they had but may not have chosen, Iscol says: "I think it's shortsighted."

Instead of taking the first available job, "be strategic about what you want to do," says Washington Army National Guard Lt. Col. Tana Avellar, manager of T-Mobile's human resources project delivery team.

When she was ready to transition out of her full-time job in military intelligence, "I really had to do some soul searching to figure out what I wanted to do," she says. "I had to take the unique skills I had in the military and translate that into what would resonate in the corporate world. It took some work and creative thinking."

For Velazquez-Morales, thinking beyond his mechanic experience led him to launch a career more fulfilling than he expected.

"Going into an office, working with a team, it's awesome," he says. "I don't smell like grease. I don't have dirty hands."

Selling Your Skills

Getting a civilian job that differs from a military role requires veterans to convincingly sell employers on their skills. Luckily, the corporate world craves the competencies the military imparts.

"Everybody leaving the military has proven they are trainable and able to work in a diverse team environment," Iscol says. "They have leadership abilities and 'follow-ship' abilities. Those are the types of people you want working on your team."

Tenacity, discipline, agility and project management are just some of the skills experts say veterans should highlight to recruiters. They should also point out how military values, such as "loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage," make them excellent additions to any workplace, Profit says.

Veterans are used to thinking of themselves as members of teams and often don't like taking personal credit for their work, Iscol says. That's a habit they should break in cover letters, resumes and job interviews.

"When you're making the case to an employer, speak specifically about things you accomplished," Iscol advises.

They should brush up on corporate jargon that employers use and avoid using military lingo, which won't impress civilian hiring managers.

"Do not use acronyms all over you resume, because no one understands those," Avellar says. "It's like a foreign language, really. Translation takes a little work on both people's parts."

[See: 8 Skills That Set Millennials Apart at Work.]

Networking for Success

Networking can help veterans find jobs and fit into civilian workplaces. Experts recommend they use LinkedIn to locate people who can provide insight into what hiring managers are looking for in specific industries and at particular companies. Veterans may find it especially helpful to identify possible connections who served in the same military branch.

"Get an ally within that company who is going to advocate for you," Iscol says. He believes many former service members are guided by a supportive outlook: "If a veteran reaches out, you're going to pick up the phone."

Many companies have employee resource groups designed to support veterans and address their unique needs. For example, at T-Mobile, more than 9,000 employees participate in the Veterans and Allies group, which has 53 chapters throughout the company. Its programs include sending workers to participate in New York City's Veterans Day parade, volunteer projects that support deployed service members and opportunities to educate other employees about veterans issues.

These organizations help recreate the military's esprit de corps, Wright says: "You have this brotherhood of being able to look to your left and right and know someone beside you knows what you're going through."

It was Deloitte's demonstrated commitment to hiring, promoting and supporting veterans that sold Velazquez-Morales on the job offer he received during his NS2 Serves training. He was impressed that the consulting firm sent a former Marine to present on the company's behalf.

"When he showed up, and I saw he was a partner high in the ranks," Velazquez-Morales recalls. "I said, 'Wow, they really do hire veterans.'"

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