A simple Google search revealed within seconds that there are around 45,000 veteran organizations in the United States, and many of them are dedicated to assisting veterans with the transition to civilian life. Most of them have veterans on the board who used to face the same “what’s next?” challenge; they have found the way out, so they are eager to help others. On top of this, we have several regulations that encourage businesses and state organizations to hire veterans.
Why then is it still an issue? Veterans’ transitions are supposed to be a smoothly run operation that lets each of them happily land in the job of their dreams. At the same time, having friends among veterans, and having veterans as my students in a range of programs, I have learned that there are challenges. I asked them to share the sources of their frustration. This is what I learned.
The first one is what we call “veterans” – all the people who have served in the military. However, as I was reminded repeatedly, the veterans that were career military officers who served for 20+ years and retired in their late 40s to early 50s, face very different employability challenges from the veterans that have served for four-six years and became veterans in their 20s or early 30s. I was told that businesses that are eager to employ veterans would prefer the latter group that is perceived as more adaptable and less threatening for existing organizational culture.
This is a big difference between a career change and a transition to civilian life. If career change requires investment in a professional area of a new skill set, then transition to civilian life needs a personal and social shift on top of the professional one. The personal shift would include the reconfiguration of a new space in the professional world. The social shift would include embeddedness in a new social environment – the one that has new values and new rules. I was told that while the professional shift is well supported with a wide range of training and education opportunities, the personal and social shifts are not.
The last challenge was most relevant for the career military officers – those who spent 20+ years in the service and reached senior rank. Those veterans have already invested in their background, so they were annoyed when they felt they needed to start over or dismiss a decent amount of their military-related skills unless they became military contractors, federal government officers, or worked for military-related nonprofit organizations. I have also learned that they feel that their way of doing things might be perceived as a challenge for organizations with a very different culture.
Listening to veterans helped me specify parameters for a personal strategy for employability. These include the following:
The first lesson I learned is that the majority of existing approaches for veterans’ employability target veterans’ adjusting to externally defined new expectations or staying within familiar territory. Many veterans will stick to this traditional approach and follow the flow: veterans in their 20s become students and blend with other students or find a job while enjoying their veteran based benefits; retired career officers become military contractors or apply for federal jobs to stay in a familiar environment and capitalize on an already accumulated skill set. The current system seems to work well for them.
At the same time, there are many of those who want to craft their edge for the civilian job market while staying true to themselves. Instead of trying to “fit” to a traditional employment process, veterans can take control over the space THEY elucidate for themselves, the employers THEY select, and the scope of problems THEY believe they can contribute to the most in relation to employers they select.
I call it the “BE”: boutique employability. In the same way, a niche market differs from a mass-market or a boutique differs from a department store, boutique employability differs from conventional approaches to employability. It emphasizes ownership and uniqueness.
The second lesson I have learned is that two groups of veterans need two approaches for employability. When I discussed the idea of “BE” with these two groups of veterans as a response to the challenges they shared, they provided me with feedback that clarified this differentiation.
Veterans in their 20s-30s, together with other Millennials labeled this approach “Boutique Employability” due to its attention to Millennials’ multidimensional profile and search for self-differentiation. Veterans, as retired career officers in their 40s-50s called it “Built-in Employability” because it allowed them to “cash in” on previously acquired skills when entering the civilian job market and reshape them for the company of their choice.
Finally, I have learned that crafting space in a market that is new for veterans needs attention paid to three areas of their employability: personal, social, and professional. I found it easier to use the business language of investments when discussing possible solutions for the challenges they share.
Similar to how businesses redefine a business model, establish connections, learn the local culture, and reassess business competencies when they enter a new market, veterans need to (a) redefine their professional core, (b) connect with people and culture, and (c) reassess their competencies for a market they choose to enter. In other words, they need to assess their investments in personal capital, social capital, and professional capital, and add capital or reinvest available capital for a new market. The group of younger veterans in their 20s and 30s need more investments into these areas, while career officers in their 40s and 50s could capitalize on accumulated investments and reconfigure them for the companies of their choice.
Bringing all these together, I have arrived at the BE-EDGE Method that addresses the above challenges and provides the instrument of personal strategy for entering a new market. It includes four E-D-G-E steps, each of which allows veterans to invest or reinvest in their personal, social, and professional capitals, and utilize their investment.
At this stage, veterans focus on their personal capital. A series of visualization exercises and inventory assessment techniques let them bridge inspirations for the “what’s next?” journey with their inner self, redefine the contours of new professional aspirations, and set a target of organizations and projects they choose to work with.
This stage is for social capital. They connect with the company of their choice, learn the challenges that the company of their choice is trying to solve together with the context of the challenge. Through listening to the company’s insiders and learning the industry rules of the game, they connect with them at the personal and social levels and absorb the language and culture of the company of their choice.
When veterans are familiar with the company’s challenges and contexts, they tailor their capabilities and previously accumulated professional capital in the recommendations of how the challenge can be solved. It allows them to reinvest, multiply their professional capital in new settings, and develop a space where veterans feel appreciated for the value they generate for the company.
Finally, veterans utilize the capital of matching personal CORE, social TRUST, and professional VALUE to establish momentum for Exciting the MARKET through establishing a strong connection between veterans’ ability to solve industry challenges, generate value, and the needs of the company in such a skill set. They feel at home with the transition complete.
Therefore, following the “E-D-G-E” process, veterans craft their “B-E” through visualizing the space that fits THEM, selecting and connecting with a company that fits THEIR space, and providing a view on solving a company challenge using THEIR way of working with challenges.
Julia Ivy’s book Crafting Your Edge for Today’s Job Market (Emerald Group Publisher, 2019) provides HR professionals, educators, coaches, and social workers with detailed descriptions, exercises, fill-in templates, and examples for each of these steps to help them assist veterans in their journey of transition to civilian life.