Cracking the Code on Military Resumes

Thanks to a wide range of varied experiences, extensive training and personal challenges, military veterans often make exceptional candidates in the private sector. Yet, due to HR's mistranslation of skill sets from the military to the civilian sector, they are often overlooked.

Monday, March 17, 2014
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The work experience our nation's military personnel receive during their service period is, by all accounts, unique and varied. Indeed, according to a new report from Washington-based Center for a New American Security titled America's Veterans: A Sound Investment., many of them are quickly forced into leadership and decision-making roles they may not have been prepared for, and most of them will rise to the challenge and gain both valuable - and marketable -- experience in the process.

"By and large, [military personnel] have a tremendous work ethic," says Los Angeles-based consultant Ritch Eich, who is also author of Leadership Requires Extra Innings: Lessons on from a Life in the Trenches. "They're not afraid to roll up their sleeves and work long hours -- it's what they've become accustomed to."

Eich says some employers may view job candidates with military backgrounds as "highly rigid, bureaucratic kinds of folks." But because of their unique experiences, most veterans actually have a tendency to not "sweat the small stuff," he says, because they are able to remain calm in stressful situations and are adept at working as part of diverse teams.

Yet, such candidates are often challenged to land post-military positions that fully leverage the value of their skills and competencies. Why? Eich calls it a "language barrier."

HR professionals and hiring managers, he says, often fail to make the connection between military backgrounds and the skills and competencies they require in their organizations. The roles and jobs are different. The terminology is different. And much of this is foreign to the vast majority of those HR professionals charged with reviewing resumes and making decisions about who to bring in for an interview.

Meanwhile, transitioning military candidates may also limit their own ability to land a job, says Linda D. Henman, president of Henman Performance Group in Chesterfield, Mo., and a member of the Air Force Association.

She says ex-military candidates tend to mention the activities they did during a particular assignment, instead of the results.

"They often led large numbers of people, oversaw significant budgets or made pivotal decisions," she says, "but they don't give themselves credit for what they did."

Further complicating their job-seeking efforts, she says, is how these candidates tend to convey their experiences in written form. "Many of them write as though the reader will realize the breadth and scope of a particular kind of assignment, so they don't provide enough detail," she says.

And they often don't position themselves in the most positive light for employers, she adds, because they don't know how to do it and they may think it sounds boastful.

So, who is ultimately responsible for overcoming these disconnects? Just like most things in life, it depends upon whom you ask.

"Employers should not spend time translating military candidates' resumes," says Joseph Terach, CEO of Resume Deli, a career-services firm based in New York. "That's the candidates' jobs."

A valid point, certainly, and there are a wide range of organizations, institutions and business professionals helping these candidates to do just that. But other experts stress there also is opportunity for organizations to ensure that they are doing their part to help those who have served the country find jobs once they return to civilian roles.

"Both sides need to be working with good intentions," says Edward Reilly, president and CEO of the American Management Association in New York.  But, he says, "I'd like to think that these folks represent a real opportunity for companies to find long-term, stable, committed employees. It's worth digging just a little bit further to see what these people are really made of."

There are a number of resources that may help HR professionals to do that digging, and some of them are even closer than HR leaders may realize.

"One idea to for human resource professionals is to ask for help from their current employees who were members of the military," says Sara Sutton Fell, CEO/founder of FlexJobs in Boulder, Colo. "They can give first-hand insights into military candidate resumes, help translate things such as certifications and responsibilities, and they already have great knowledge of your company and how those candidates might be a great fit."

If there are no former military employees currently in your organization, Fell suggests partnering with organizations such as the Wounded Warriors to Work Program, or Bonds of Courage, to enlist their expertise.

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"As an HR professional," she says, "it's absolutely worth it to educate yourself on military candidate resumes because you'll be able to tap into a whole new pool of job candidates."  

One resource that Reilly recommends is an AMA publication titled Field Tested: Recruiting, Managing and Retaining Veterans. In addition, he suggests, when preparing to interview a veteran, take a few minutes to look at the web site from their branch of service -- Army, Navy, Marines or Air Force. Each, he says, displays very prominently their core values, which can present a good starting point for conversation and help to link military values to corporate values.

A new report titled Veterans in Solar: Securing America's Energy Future also provides some insights into best practices for identifying and engaging veterans. According to The Solar Foundation, the U.S. solar industry employs 13,192 veterans of the armed forces, a figure which represents 9.2 percent of all solar workers in the nation. Compared with veteran employment in the overall economy (where, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, veterans constitute 7.6 percent of all workers), the solar industry can be

seen as a strong employer of former service members.

Unfortunately, some tools currently used by HR professionals may actually be working against them when it comes to finding veterans who would fit well within their organizations.

For example, online resume-management systems that screen for specific keywords may automatically screen out veterans' resumes that don't contain the proper "management-speak." A way around this for those committed to finding and recruiting from veterans' ranks would be to add keywords like "veteran," "military" or other similar terms to search queries so that these resumes get sent through and can be more thoroughly evaluated.

But ultimately, if an ex-military candidate's resume is presented in an unfamiliar manner or contains military terms or acronyms, "do not hesitate to have the person explain whatever it is you do not understand," Eich says.

"You may find this information reveals a lot about the person's experience, and knowing these terms will help in screening other applicants with military backgrounds," he says. "As a bonus, that explanation will give you a greater sense of the person's communication skills."

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