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Overcoming Stereotypes Hiring Officials Associate with the Military

By Don Orlando, MBA, CPRW, JCTC, CCM, CCMC, Col. USAF (ret.)

On the surface, moving on to a civilian career seems so straight forward.

Isn't the military held in high esteem? Haven't you done things and gone places your civilian counterparts can't even dream about? Haven't you had the best training in the world? Weren't you evaluated on your leadership, management, judgment, and mission completion skills against tough competition? For years?

All those things are true. But there is often a hidden assumption underlying the logic, an assumption that can slow or derail your second career. In this article, I'll describe that assumption and suggest tactics you can use to win the second civilian career you deserve.

The assumption began 37 years ago when President Nixon signed the All Volunteer Force into existence. Since then, we've had nearly two generations of military professionals who've known nothing else, two generations serving with people who want to be on active duty.

But the gap between the civilian culture and the military culture can still be wide. When we had the draft, one in four Americans had either served or had a close family member who had. Today, the ratio is 1 in about 400. This gap generated some stereotypes.

You and I know these images aren't true, but civilian hiring officials may believe them. After all, what they know about the military comes from TV, the movies, action games, and the media.

Ready? Here are some of the mind sets hiring decision makers may have:

  • Military people always have unlimited resources of every kind.
  • Military people don't have to think; they just give and take orders.
  • Military people are rigid. They only do things one way.
  • Military people are inflexible because they have a rigid command structure.
  • Military people don't know profit and loss.
  • Senior officers and NCOs are prima donnas who demand respect.

I won't waste your time refuting them; you know why all of them are untrue. Instead, let me suggest some approaches to help you get over or around the barriers.

To begin, it's important to know how jobs come about. Every job comes about when a hiring decision maker sees the need for a missing capability. He or she expresses that missing capability as knowledge, skills, abilities, and passion abbreviated by a job title: a career field.

That fact is your first line of defense. You must focus on a career field. Said another way, a general résumé is dead on departure.

By the way, "leadership" and "management" are not career fields. They are tools. You can be a sales manager, a production manager, even a swine farm manager-but those career field names have the required focus.

The next step is to find which capabilities each field values. The Occupational Outlook Handbook is an excellent source. You can find it on line here http://www.bls.gov/oco/. It covers about 90 percent of all the careers in the US. Read each write-up carefully. Dig deep to find out what employers are looking for.

You may also want to visit the websites for professional organizations. You are looking for an organization composed of, and serving the needs of, a given career field. The Public Relations Council, the American Marketing Association, the American Production and Inventory Control Society are all examples.

The American Society of Association Executives' (ASAE) site can help you find more than 6,500 associations. Once you find the association for your industry, click through to search for member organizations. The ASAE's URL is http://www.asaecenter.org/Directories/AssociationSearch.cfm .

Go to the organization's site and look at their annual conference program. The titles and brief descriptions of each session tell you what the "hot button" issues are in each career field.

Using what you've learned, pull together information the hiring decision maker must have to see you as making his organization much more money than it costs to find, recruit, and retain you. Much of that information resides in success stories.

Each success story must show you as a problem solver because that's why you'll be hired-regardless your career field, the position you are targeting, the industry that interests you, or the size of the company you want to work with.

Start by laying out each problem. That's not as easy as it sounds; nearly everybody confuses the symptoms with the problems. So, for example, a dip in your combat ready rate is a symptom. The problem could be anything from failed equipment to severe under manning to transportation bottlenecks.

Now tell what you did to solve the problem. Lay out the results, quantified, put in context, and compared to a standard if possible. Finally, put the bottom line first.

Want an example? Here's one from a Coast Guard veteran looking for a position in civilian helicopter operations.

GETTING THE MOST RETURN FROM EVERY DOLLAR

Payoffs: Worked to save $720K and restore vital capability we were about to lose when failing legacy radios hindered our mission. Did the homework to find tactical radios to meet very tough standards. Then wrote policy and maintenance guidelines in house to save even more and maximize capability.

Note how the "headline" addresses a primary concern of every hiring official. To get the impact in a hurry, I emphasized the word "Payoffs:" The cause of the problem is clear: the old radios failed and the organization didn't have new ones. Notice the results, not just in dollars, but in capability.

Capture as many stories as you need to demonstrate the abilities hiring decision makers are looking for when they search for someone in a given career field.

You now have powerful tools to defeat the stereotypes. You focused on a given career field. You found what people who make job offers in those fields are looking for. You laid out "living, breathing" proof that you have what it takes to make the target company a lot more money than it takes to hire and retain you. In short, you're on your way to winning your next career.