By Sarah Landrum
The most recent jobs report shows a mixed economic picture: Stagnant wages are a troubling hurdle, but employees are returning to work. The numbers for veterans are painted in similar shades of grey: They boast a higher median income than those who have never served … but they also face higher levels of unemployment.
If you’re a veteran seeking to make the transition to a civilian career, you face a hard battle, but a battle worth fighting. Here are a few tips for how to best equip yourself to let your service shine through to prospective employers.
Know Your Rights Under USERRA
First, it’s important to know your rights under USERRA if you left a civilian position to serve in the military. As a veteran, you have a federally protected right to return to the civilian position you held prior to leaving for military service. So long as you meet the requirements, they have to take you back, and they have to take you back at the same position and an equivalent level of pay.
Start reading up on your rights under USERRA now, and check your eligibility against these five qualifications:
- Must have held a civilian job prior to deployment.
- Must have given written or verbal notice of military deployment to employer prior to leaving. If you were a member of the reserves and were called up for service, you’re exempt from this one.
- Must have been in the military for less than 5 cumulative years. But this one comes with a boatload of exceptions, the most important ones being:
- If you were serving out a longer period of initial enlistment or you couldn’t negotiate a release from service.
- If your five-year-limit was precluded by compulsory drills or training.
- If you were active-duty in a time of national emergency — and oh, by the way, the US has been in a state of emergency since September 11, 2001.
- Must not have been dishonorably discharged.
- Must report back to civilian job in a timely manner — see here for more specific details on what “timely” means.
USERRA is designed to help veterans looking to reenter the workforce gain their footing and plug the employment gap in their resume. So use it!
Don’t Wait to Start Looking
Many veterans make the mistake of putting off the job hunt until the instant they step off the tarmac. Don’t. The Transition Assistance Program is important, and you should make every effort to utilize it as much as possible, but you shouldn’t stop there.
Start researching your industry now. Get on sites liked Glassdoor or Indeed and make a shortlist of eye-catching companies in your field, then start reaching out via LinkedIn and email. You should also read up on veteran career-transition tips, not only from government-sponsored programs like Career One Stop, but also from vet-oriented employment organizations in the private sector, such as one-on-one assistance from Career Pro Plus and the Veteran Staffing Network, and the free transition advice and connections to employers that Corporate Gray provides.
Emphasize Accomplishments and Skills
As a veteran, your greatest challenge is the stigma associated with prolonged unemployment, or rather, prolonged absence from the civilian workforce. But it’s important to realize that battle isn’t one of hard data: it’s one of persuasion and context. And your goal isn’t to convince recruiters why your unemployment should be ignored — it’s to help them understand that you haven’t been unemployed at all; you’ve been serving!
The battle for explaining your skills and accomplishments is one of persuasion and context, rather than hard data. Your goal is to show recruiters (many of whom don’t understand military experience) what you’ve accomplished during service in terms they can relate to.
What was your position in the service? What did you do on a day-to-day basis? What skills did that require? What have you learned? What have you done? Have you led any projects? Managed groups of people? Gained any commendations? If so, how many and what do they represent?
Your service is something to be proud of. Your goal is simply to educate employers and help them understand who you are and what makes you qualified. Or to put it another way …
Explain Like I’m Your Mom
Remember those phone and Facebook conversations with friends and relatives while you were away? When they asked what you were up to, did you say something like, “Field-level maintenance on electronic nodal assemblages?” Or was it more along the lines of, “Building computer networks and maintaining security systems?”
Which do you think gets the point across better?
When dealing with prospective employers, take a similar tack. Strip out the military jargon and complicated hierarchical bureaucracy, and don’t even think about reaching for the acronyms. Use the same kind of language you might in speaking to a relative: keep it simple, and try to make them go, “Woaaaah.”
Leave Your Uniform at the Door
Serving in the armed forces trains you for life, but life means just that: more than the military. Military is who you were, who you are, who you always will be … but it’s not all that describes you.
Your military service is a great tool for standing apart and getting a foot in the door – but once you’re there, make sure you don’t let it pigeonhole you. You don’t want to leave an interview and be remembered as “that army guy/gal.” You want to be remembered as the most qualified person who applied.
Because, thanks to your training and your service, there’s a pretty good chance you are.
Interview Preparation: Research Yourself!
How to Get the Inside Scoop about a Company: Informational Interviews
Five Steps to Nailing an Interview after Returning to Civilian Life
Making the Most of the Job Fair Experience
About the Author
Sarah Landrum is a freelance writer and the founder of Punched Clocks. Having grown up in a military family, Sarah is passionate about helping veterans reach their potential and realize their dreams. She shares advice on all aspects of the job search and career development on her career advice blog and on Twitter @SarahLandrum.