Veteran Careers: Overcoming Cultural Barriers in the Civilian World was originally published on Vault.
“I had never considered what someone in uniform goes through as they transition out of the military into a civilian career. I had no military connection myself. But I saw it as an opportunity to take what I was doing in the corporate world—helping executives and professionals position themselves—and offer my services to veterans.”—Lida Citroën
Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to talk to Lida Citroën, a branding expert who specializes in helping military veterans to transition into the civilian workforce. During our conversation, Citroën touched on a lot of concepts, including some of the stereotypes that veterans face during the hiring process, to specific steps that transitioning members of the military can take to make the process easier to navigate. While this post covers Citroën’s motivation, and some of the cultural barriers that veterans face in making a smooth transition out of the military, I’ll be sharing more of Citroën’s insights here on Vault’s blog over the next couple of days, so stay tuned for additional posts.
According to BLS data, there are approximately 20.9 million veterans in the US—around nine percent of the population. And recent veterans—those who served on active duty since September 11, 2001—are more likely to have difficulty finding employment than the average US jobseeker: in March 2017, that group’s unemployment rate stood at 5.1%, compared to 4.5% for the population as a whole.
That’s where Lida Citroën comes in: having spent time doing branding work in the corporate world, the job losses she saw all around her during the onset of the financial crisis in 2008 led her to “pivot onto how people build a brand.” A year later, watching a military tribute on Veterans Day, she had something of an epiphany, which is described in that opening quote above. As she noted during our conversation, “It’s a way of saying thank you for me, to the men and women who put the uniform on. Both of my parents came from Europe, so I learned at an early age that freedom doesn’t come for free, and this a way that I could serve those who served me.”
While Citroën is a familiar face on military bases today, where she regularly teaches classes and speaks to groups of servicemen and women, the path to acceptance wasn’t particularly smooth. As she tells it, there was something of a culture clash with some of the government and private organizations that already existed to help veterans—clashes that indicate just how out of step the military and civilian worlds can be when it comes to translating the tools and skills required for building a career.
“I came in with an approach that was very different [from how existing organizations approached transitioning skills]. My program doesn’t focus on resume writing, or how to dress for an interview, or how to build your LinkedIn profile—those are pieces of what I talk about, but I start with ‘Who is the individual?’, and ‘How do we articulate their value proposition?’ And then, ‘How do we build the marketing pieces?’ So this concept of personal branding sounded loose to them […] they didn’t understand what I was talking about because they hadn’t seen it before.”
What Hiring Challenges Do Veterans Face?
During our conversation, Citroën identified two main cultural barriers that veterans face in terms of how they approach the job search:
1) Willingness to self-promote
2) Translating skills to a civilian environment
“I think their biggest challenge is their ability or their desire to be able to speak about themselves,” says Citroën. “The culture here teaches service before self. What that means is that as a member of the US military, it’s not about you anymore. It’s about those men and women you serve alongside and who you are to protect and defend. So there’s this culture of what I call ‘I before we’, or ‘I versus we.'”
“Veterans are not comfortable talking about themselves. They’re not comfortable taking credit for their accomplishments. They are taught that you take accountability and responsibility, but you push credit down. It’s not about tooting your own horn or bragging about your successes. When they transition out of service, they enter a culture–the civilian culture–which is very much about self-promotion.”
“A hiring manager or recruiter needs to understand what sets an applicant apart from their competitor, what have they done that they’ve been successful at, and they sometimes struggle with pulling that information out of veterans. And they can misread that reluctance to self-promote as insecurity or a lack of confidence, when in fact it’s respect for those they served with.”
It’s one thing telling and coaching veterans to get better about talking about themselves, but it’s another thing entirely to try to find a job in a setting where hiring managers seem to be speaking a different language altogether.
According to Citroën, “Most employers or hiring managers will tell you that they would love to hire veterans, but if they see a military resume, they have no idea what it means.”
As big of a problem as that is, it’s compounded by another one, which again underlines the disconnect between the two cultures: “Veterans often don’t know how to put their backgrounds into civilian language.”
One potential solution has been the development of online translators that can take a MOS—a Military Occupational Specialty—and match it up with potential career options in the civilian world.
But even those, says Citroën, don’t help everyone: “You and I know that just because you’ve done something in the past, it doesn’t necessarily mean you want to do it in the future. So if somebody was a mechanic in the Army, they might not want to be a mechanic in their civilian career.”
Instead, she advocates that veterans go one level deeper in terms of how they think about their role in the military: “What are the skills they learned in order to be a mechanic in the Army? What does it take to be successful and good at that job? It’s skills like problem solving and working under adverse conditions, being able to deal with high stress situations, make quick decisions, leadership skills. Those qualities don’t always come attached to the job description that the military produces for a mechanic, for instance, but they’re still part of it.”
As Citroën tells it, there is a significant gulf between the culture in the military and the civilian world that makes a smooth transition between the two difficult to negotiate. While some employers, such as government contractors, are pretty good at navigating that gulf, others have a way to go–and Citroën herself is working on that, having published an employer’s guide to Engaging with Veteran Talent earlier this year. In the meantime, the responsibility for navigating the different cultures really falls on veterans themselves. In addition to the tips above—learning how to parse past roles for specific skills and accomplishments, and to become comfortable talking about them—we’ll be sharing a few more in the second and third parts of this interview, so be sure to check those out as they become available.