About 200,000 service members transition out of the United States Armed Forces every year, and many of them struggle with what comes next: using military skills to start a civilian career.
Leaving the military and getting a new job can be a daunting challenge for veterans. The mentality, work environment, and social norms are all different. The transition can be jarring, even for distinguished veterans, who struggle with a loss of purpose after the military.
According to Navy veteran Jacob Johnson, adjusting to civilian life can be one of the hardest things to do. But veterans have valuable non-technical skills that help lead to career success, such as leadership, dependability, and accountability.
"Being in the military can be tedious and at times downright annoying," said Johnson, a Navy corpsman from 2016 to 2021, who is now CEO of Trading Legacies, a copywriting agency. "But it is the small, insignificant moments that have been hardwired into each of us that set us apart."
Yet, those skills often get overlooked. David Martinez, Colorado area manager at Hire Heroes USA, said the common mistake veterans make during their transition is assuming they aren't qualified for certain careers "when they absolutely are."
"For example, a veteran who worked in physical security-type roles might think they are only suited for law enforcement or private security," Martinez said. "However, planning operations, delegating to junior supervisors, applying time management, and overseeing a budget are skills that apply to a variety of roles."
Here, we highlight five of the most common soft skills that veterans learn in the military, regardless of branch. For each, we explain why they matter in the civilian world and how they make you a stronger employee.
Leadership is what makes the military's hierarchical system tick, from the generals to enlisted personnel. It also makes you a strong addition to the workplace.
Many veterans have led, motivated, and inspired others to accomplish organizational goals, such as during a physical training exercise or while meeting a unit quota. That kind of straightforward leadership can be valuable in your civilian career.
You're uniquely qualified to take the lead on challenging projects, bring out the best in others' abilities, and instill confidence in your teammates. You're also trained to lead by example, so that others can follow.
Being an effective leader also puts you in a position to contribute to your organization's overall success. One survey found that strong leadership positively affects the workplace environment.
"Leading teams, even small groups, is something that delivers value to an employer, and it's experience that a recent college graduate may not have. Being able to say something like, 'I led a team of six mechanics that repaired and maintained $20 million in vehicles,' is not something a lot of people can say, but really stands out on the resume."
–David Martinez, Colorado area manager, Hire Heroes USA
Teamwork is everything in the military. You know firsthand what it's like to contribute to a team while depending on others to do their jobs. If teams don't work together, missions fail.
Teamwork has a similar impact for most businesses. Research shows it's often the driving force behind innovative ideas, strong performance, and better workplace morale.
One of the key experiences you have is working toward a common goal with others who have unique knowledge, skills, and abilities. You realize the importance of combining different strengths and skill sets to accomplish a task and become a stronger team in the process.
Being familiar with team cohesion also means you're accustomed to dealing with and overcoming adversity as a unit. Employers will appreciate your readiness to work as a member of a diverse team and handle bumps in the road.
"Some of the most consistent feedback from the companies that host our fellows is that veterans easily integrate themselves into workplaces and into new teams."
–Michail "Gus" Huerter, Director, Hiring Our Heroes, Corporate Fellowship Program
The military is extremely mission-focused. When you get an assignment, you plan for what needs to be accomplished and execute that plan flawlessly.
You can apply the same level of focus to your civilian career. By completing assignments consistently and on time, you'll establish yourself as a dependable worker.
To take it a step further, the most dependable workers are the ones who go above and beyond expectations. According to Colorado State University, some examples of that work behavior include:
- Accurately scoping out the work in advance and creating efficient workflows and processes
- Developing reliable working rapport with customers and peers
- Following through and meeting commitments
- Availability as a resource to subordinates and peers
- Consistently outperforming other people or groups because of excellence at planning, priority setting, and execution
"Employers look at veterans as someone who can follow processes, adhere to procedures, and work under difficult conditions. These are all qualities that can lead to executing priorities at a high level, exceeding employer expectations, and building a successful civilian career."
–David Martinez, Colorado area manager, Hire Heroes USA
The military trained you to act responsibly and always do the right thing — even when no one is watching. You took ownership of your actions, decisions, and roles when given a task.
Accountability goes a long way in the workplace, too. Being accountable will help you build trust, increase synergy, and set clear expectations with your manager or coworkers.
According to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), accountability can also help you become a stronger employee and more valuable contributor. The possible benefits include:
- Improved performance
- More employee participation and involvement
- Increased feelings of competency
- Increased employee commitment to the work
- More creativity and innovation
- Higher employee morale and satisfaction with the work
"Any business that's employed veterans has a deep respect and appreciation for their ability to meet and exceed whatever goals and expectations are set out by leadership."
–Stephanie Dasher, Navy veteran and executive director of Warrior Surf Foundation
5. Work Ethic
The military instills timeliness, professionalism, and work ethic. These are also some of the first things employers look for when hiring: A strong work ethic is crucial for career success.
As a veteran, you know how to take orders and work hard. But what does that mean in the context of the workplace?
According to a RAND Corporation report, veterans possess special qualities of work ethic. They're generally hard workers who won't quit, procrastinate, or fail to complete their tasks once they've begun.
Veterans also tend to believe that success is always attainable with persistence. They'll always work hard, even when the reward is small or unlikely to be obtained.
"Employers know that when hiring a veteran, they're getting an employee who is going to show up for work and put in an honest effort in whatever task/project the veteran is assigned."
–Mark Nadig, director of the VETS Center at Southern Nazarene University
It's common for veterans to struggle to adapt to the civilian workforce. It can be especially tough if a similar job to their military occupation isn't waiting for them after their service. But veterans come away with many transferable skills that are needed in the workplace. Knowing what those skills are and how to leverage make them much stronger employees in the long run.
Evan Thompson is a Washington-based writer for TBS covering higher education. He has bylines in the Seattle Times, Tacoma News Tribune, Everett Herald, and others from his past life as a newspaper reporter.
Header Image Credit: SDI Productions, ferrentraite | Getty Images
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