Some veterans need help with job-hunting skills

Tuesday, November 27, 2007
Darren Doherty, a former captain and Army aviator, sat in his office Nov. 12 at Dannenbaum Engineering in Houston. Doherty has made the transition from military life to civilian life as an engineer. (Bob Levey ~ Associated Press)

FORT RILEY, Kan. -- Brian Brooks sat against the wall listening intently to instructions for his next mission. After 20 years of working for team Army, the next task was all his.

Brooks is trading his uniform and procurement job for civilian clothes and work schedules. Since 1987, he has reported each day for duty, knowing there was a job waiting for him. Now, there's no guarantee.

"For some of us, it's a different world. It will make you a little nervous," said Brooks, 38, who's retiring after 20 years.

The disconnect between life in the active duty military and the civilian job market is not unusual. For the nearly 250,000 who leave the military annually, selling themselves to employers isn't something they have had to worry about for years -- if ever.

For the Department of Defense, having thousands of unemployed veterans is costly. In 2006, the agency paid $518 million in unemployment benefits, and $365 million through the first three quarters of 2007.

Veterans say it's difficult to go from a culture where the emphasis is on "we," as in the squad or platoon, to "me," as in a qualified applicant.

"It's lost in the translation, this inability of the veteran to communicate all of their skills to an employer in a way that is meaningful," said Tom Aiello, vice president of, a division of Monster Worldwide.

A recent survey by found that 76 percent of veterans felt unable to effectively translate their military skills in civilian terms and 72 percent felt unprepared to negotiate a salary. The survey heard from 287 recruiters and hiring managers from firms across the country, as well responses from 4,442 veterans. Responses were gathered through telephone interviews and online questioning.

"Because their resumes and experiences differ from traditional candidates, it can be challenging for hiring managers to immediately appreciate the value they bring," Aiello said.

Six months before he left the Army, Darren Doherty started looking for his next job, sending out resumes and applying through the Internet. He earned an engineering degree from West Point and he was looking for a career in that field in his home state of Texas.

Doherty turned to The Lucas Group, an executive search agency that has a reputation among ex-military personnel and specializes in finding jobs for retired officers and enlisted soldiers, to help him connect with firms. After several weeks of sending out applications and interviews, he landed a job with Dannenbaum Engineering in Houston, whose chief executive officer is a retired Army colonel.

A week and a half after he left the Army, he started in Houston.

"The civilian work force can be a scary place when you've learned to enjoy the security of the military," said Doherty, 31, a former captain and Army aviator.

Andrew Hollitt, an executive senior partner at Lucas Group, said intangibles such as leadership skills in veterans like Doherty make them attractive candidates, regardless of the job market. But found most employers don't have a complete understanding of what skills and talents veterans offer.

Veterans have to overcome perceptions from employers who see a former artillery or infantry officer trained to kill or blow things up, but don't see that they also have talents in motivating others, leading them through a task or managing personnel with complex personalities.

Part of Hollitt's challenge is helping veterans learn what to expect and to recognize what their skills are.

"They are smart, hardworking and have a good moral compass," Hollitt said.

While younger soldiers often exude confidence after Army life, Doherty said older veterans may have a different outlook when they have to start looking for a job. They often are more realistic about finding a job, realizing it's not going to be a slam dunk and that it may take some time and hard work.

Doherty prepared himself for what could have been a long search. He knew he had some resources to bridge between the military and first job, but couldn't go months without a steady paycheck and had to start thinking about employment sooner, rather than later.

"Once I realized that I could feed the kids and would have diapers, you get some perspective and make some decisions," Doherty said. "It was nerve wracking."

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