A military career offers both advantages and challenges for transition to the civilian workplace.
Unlike other careers, retirement from a military career typically occurs when people are still of working age. As a result, many veterans transition to a civilian workplace. In an average year, for example, the UK workforce will include between 13,000 to 23,000 veterans.
Most companies are keen to hire veterans, who bring both experience and a rigorous work ethic to their new civilian jobs. However, the challenges of transitioning from military to civilian workplaces can be overlooked or underestimated.
A review of business and military databases, and more than 23 UK and US academic studies on military veterans in the workplace, yielded four main themes related to the transition from military to civilian work:
1. The value of military experience. As veterans prepare to leave the military, they often have a naïve view of the superiority and usefulness of military experience in the civilian workplace. While military experience can be valued by prospective employers, it does not automatically grant the veteran with an advantage over other prospective employees who bring their own distinct advantages. In addition, veterans find that when they switch to civilian jobs, their military experience is neither understood nor valued. Applying military skills in the civilian workplace can lead to conflict, and civilians often fail to understand the intrinsic value of military training. In addition, the civilian workplace is more narrowly focused than the military workplace; as a result, the wide range of skills, knowledge and experience acquired in the military is not used or under-used.
Not all experiences are negative. Many veterans found employers who appreciated their military work experience, notably in terms of positive military characteristics such as stress management, teamwork, leadership, a strong work ethic, the willingness to take risks and innovate, and a “can-do” attitude. Nevertheless, veterans often overestimate just how much their military work background will be valued in the civilian world.
2. Variables for a successful career transition. The most important variable for a successful career transition is the ability to transfer skills. The most obvious skills transfer strategy is to transfer to a similar role: military pharmacists becoming civilian pharmacists, for example. Many veterans also choose civilian careers in which military skills are more transferable—for example, careers in security, engineering or factory work. Another skills transfer strategy is to find a job or profession that offers greater flexibility—that is, less requirement to conform to civilian workplace practices. In one study, veterans appreciated the flexibility of being a franchisee more than civilians, for example.
Finally, veterans who worked to adapt to the civilian workplace—actively learning about the different work culture by asking questions, joining working groups, and networking, or understanding the need to learn new processes and accept change—were more likely to successfully make the transition.
3. The difference between military and civilian employment. Veterans struggle with two fundamental differences between a military and a civilian workplace. The first is the lack of camaraderie in the civilian workplace, at least compared to the military workplace. Because of the high risks and stakes linked to military work, complete trust in one’s colleagues is highly valued. Teamwork and a collective purpose are much more emphasized in the military context.
The second fundamental involves communication, which in the military is more direct and focused than in civilian work. Veterans find themselves working to temper their communication style to avoid resistance. The different communication culture extends to moving from decision to action—a process that is more direct in the military.
Because of these differences in the level of camaraderie and collective purpose along with differences in communication style, veterans tend to have weaker, less trusting relationships with their civilian work colleagues.
4. The employee’s identity as a veteran. The final theme to emerge from the study of veterans transitioning to the civilian workforce is how much the work identity of the person is tied to being in the military. The military workplace is defined by values such as action orientation, discipline, leadership skills, and respect for authority. Veterans who are prepared to leave behind their military work identity and adjust into a civilian work identity are better able to negotiate the transition. Not all military values need to be abandoned; but some elements of the old military identity need to be let go.
When hiring a veteran, employers tend to focus on the attributes of the military background—the work ethic and skills learned, for example—while perhaps forgetting the extent of the adjustment required to transition to a civilian workplace. Leaders can help new employees with military backgrounds make the adjustment, using the four themes described above as a guide. Some suggestions:
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