Career Services For Active Duty Is The Key To Long Term Success

Veteran hiring is an important issue and it’s rightly on the the minds of a lot of people and organizations.  But in reality, it’s only a symptom of a larger disease.  Instead of veteran hiring initiatives, what we really need is better career services programs aimed at those on active duty.  In comparing active duty service members and college students it’s easy to find many similarities, as well as differences.  One big thing they have in common is that, eventually, they will need to leave their present organization in search of gainful employment.  The manner in which they prepare for that jump, however, is in no way the same.

Colleges and universities exists not to produce students, but to produce successful alumni. Students pay a lot of (mostly borrowed) money for an organization to prepare them for the next stage of their life. Good colleges understand this. They know that a diploma only validates the worth of a student so long as the graduates continue to validate the worth of the diploma with their productivity. It’s a symbiotic relationship and the department of career services is the catalyst in this equation.

The military on the other hand exists to harvest your skills while you are inside the system.  Yes, you will be trained to do a job. You will then be given all (or at least some) of the tools needed to perform said tasks and expected to get the job done. That’s how the military operates. It’s mission driven.

Military career planners are tasked with assisting active duty members on how to navigate their internal careers. They ensure career wickets are met, forms are completed, and classes are attended. They let you know if, and when, you can reenlist and, if so, under what circumstances. They must know how their particular service works in order to advise a member how to best navigate his or her individual career. But make no mistake, they work for the organization, not the individual.

This is the reality of the situation and the sooner an active duty member accepts it as such, the better their chances for long term success.  I’ve seen too many  mid-level service members get comfortable with the idea that the skills they’ve acquired will enable them to walk right into a similar job once they decide to leave the military.

Service members should learn early on that value in the civilian world is based upon supply and demand. Not only are there a lot of other individuals coming out of the military with your same skill set, but there are also others that may have attained the same level of proficiency through the traditional education system.

The decision to leave the military (voluntarily or not)  means we  are entering the job market and now must compete for those coveted things we call jobs. Fortune favors the prepared.small_8072539635

This is why smart college students are engaging their career services offices early and often in their academic careers.  Admittedly, not all college students take advantage of this opportunity, but then again not all college graduates are getting jobs either.

Unfortunately for those in the military though, there isn’t a true “career services” center as readily available, even if they wanted one. The closest thing are the various  Transition Assistance Programs, but while these programs have some great individuals working there, the focus is often retrospective.  The task is more about sorting through previous experiences and certifications to try to piece together a plan. Often times this is too late.

What service members need is no different than what their peers need. They need to figure out who they are, where they want to go, and how to get there.  The sooner anyone, college student, service member, or entrepreneur can answer these questions, the sooner they can move forward on their life journey.

I know that it’s unrealistic to expect the military to develop and fund a career services department in the same manner that colleges operate. It’s not the job of the military to do that, and to be honest, I doubt it would be effective, cost efficient, or well received.

This is why it’s incumbent on the service members who truly want to succeed after the military to become their own career services center.  Service members must let go of the notion that this lack of a dedicated career services department is an obstacles too difficult to overcome.   There is very little that a career services center does that can not be done by an individual service member, particularly in the age of the internet.

The most important part of the career services puzzle is to network early and find mentors in fields that interest you.  This means keeping up with people you work with in order to have strong network. It means using the military alumni network the same way universities do, not to ask for a job after graduation, but to learn about a job, career field, organization early.

Early engagement leads to knowing what it takes to get there, and it provides opportunities to become a known entity. When people talk about getting a job from someone in their network, it’s rarely a close friend.  On the contrary, it’s typically from the weak connections, the people you used to work with, or the civilian individual in the same field that you only see every few months.  Strong networks are only built over time,and  luckily that’s one thing the military offers in abundance. It’s up to us how we use it.

I’m not advocating for people to spend their entire military career schmoozing.  Just as the first job for those in college is to be a student, the primary mission of a service member is always to be a Soldier, Sailor, Airman, or Marine.  It is very possible, though, to be great at your job while simultaneously preparing for life after the military, especially if you keep up with your industry.

Some of the same advice being offered to current college students is easily adaptable to young service members.  When a career services professional like Rich Grant writes about about how to use Twitter as a networking tool those tips can be just as relevant to the service member as they are to the college student.  When a recruiter like Steve Levy offers tips on how to improve career services at the college level, many of these ideas can be individually applied to the needs of today’s service members. Even better, Levy’s blog has posts specifically aimed at veterans, including a terrific one about active duty people using LinkedIn.

Spoiler alert- he encourages you to get active now, as opposed to waiting until it’s time for transition…..are you sensing a trend?

photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sirwiseowl/8072539635

The Next Big Thing: Honesty

A few months ago I asked the question, “How Long Will Veterans Be Trendy?  Well, if social media is any indication, the answer seems to be, “Not much longer.” I think we are beginning to see a slight shift in message about veteran hiring, which in the end is a good thing.  I have a feeling the next big thing will be honest and forthright conversation. Stakeholders that are prepared to engage in the right discussions, at the right times, will ultimately be the most successful.

It wasn’t long ago that a Forbes article by Col . David Sutherland talking about the unsung value of veteran Non-Commissioned Officers was making its way around every veteran hiring group on LinkedIn.  This article spawned a lot of comments, many of them from disgruntled veterans who found the article sympathetic to their plight.  While these discussions between veterans may have been cathartic, I doubt they were very productive.

I don’t take issue with the article in and of itself.  Colonel Sutherland’s thoughts were very appropriate for the vast majority of regular readers of Forbe’s Magazine. Sometimes, though, by saying the right thing to the wrong people a positive thought can result in negative results.    I think passing this article around military circles probably did this, at least to some extent. We as veterans don’t need anything  reinforcing a sense of victimhood.

Feeling like a victim can lead to distrust of the system.  I see this not only in the article, Commitment to Veterans- Lip Service, Hype, Or True Investment? by Linda Rosser, but even more so in some of the comments on the article in groups like The Value of A Veteran and Hiring Our Heroes.  Unfortunately, every time an organization markets their commitment to military hiring, anyone who unsuccessfully applied to that company may begin to view them as disingenuous. “Just a bunch of hype”, they may say. Even if, unbeknownst to them, said position was actually filled by another veteran.

On the other hand, the article “Congratulations on Your Military Service- Now Here Are Nine Reasons Why I Won’t Hire You” , by Sultan Camp absolutely exploded in the veteran specific LinkedIn groups.  I’ve been actively preparing for my transition for over two years and I don’t remember ever seeing one article pop up so often, in so many groups, and been shared by so many different people.  This article really initiated some quality discussions (a great example was in the group Military Civilian Coaching Connection).

I think this shows that many veteran job seekers are prepared for the truth. So don’t be afraid to tell us what we need to hear, as opposed to what we want to hear. The former is an integral component of a hiring program, the latter is a marketing and public relations plan.

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If your organization is committed to hiring a specific number of veterans but most of those positions are for low skill entry level work, say so.  There are a great number of veterans leaving the service that are, in all honesty, perfect candidates for those positions.  If your organization only has a need for high level skill sets that require specific qualifications, make that known as well.

One of the best methods of risk management is to think to yourself, “How could this go wrong?”  Applying that to a veteran hiring program, one way organizations can (and often do) put themselves in a bad position is by sending personnel to career fairs who have no specific information about open positions.  Throw in a non veteran recruiter, and you have the perfect storm.

My work as an Officer Recruiter in the Navy has allowed me the opportunity to work on “the other side of the table” of many a career fair.  I know that far too often candidates show up to a booth unprepared. Lack of preparation on the part of some prospects, however, should never justify lack of preparation for the recruiter.

If  your organization has job postings on the website that are open, well then, your company rep had better know something about them.  Nothing kills the motivation of a job hunting veteran more than when they put forth all the effort of researching a company, finding job postings, preparing a resume, and making their way to a career fair only to be told to just leave your resume and “go ahead and apply online”.

Even if that recruiter doesn’t specifically work in the field the candidate is inquiring about, that booth rep should at the very least be a subject matter expert in the process.  Advice on how to navigate your companies Applicant Tracking System is better than nothing, and can go a long way in enhancing credibility.

Private organizations need both a recruitment plan and a marketing plan, and these two functions often do overlap.  All candidates want is for organizations to be honest.  If your company’s primary reason for purchasing a booth was to hand out free pens and stress balls in order to promote company awareness, then say so.

Conversely, an organization whose recruiters have specific information about actual positions, should  absolutely advertise that ahead of time.  Telling people what you have open, the skill sets needed, and where to find your booth can actually be a differentiating trait between competing organizations.

In regards to any recruiter /candidate relationship, it’s honest conversation that increases quality interactions over quantity of interactions. And these quality interactions are the crux of any hiring initiative, veteran or otherwise.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/reenita/4892984424/”>Reena Mahtani</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;

LinkedIn Groups….Who Are You Hanging Out With?

You need to be on LinkedIn…..that drum gets beat into every separating service members head during their transition classes.  Unfortunately, though, LinkedIn is not something a lot of people in the service use during their time on active duty, so it can be daunting to just jump right in.  A lot of people establish profiles under duress, not believing they will do any good.  Without any direction on how to make the platform work for them, their profile sits there in cyberspace with very few connections, only reinforcing the service members original thoughts on its lack of value.

So, what can service members do to break out of their shell and quit being a wallflower at the Post Military Employment Prom?  Just like any other social event, if you don’t already have a date, you need to hang with a group.  And just like High School, who you hang with is critical. Unlike High School, however, LinkedIn recognizes that people are complex, so there is no need to feel like you have to declare your allegiance to one clique. LinkedIn allows you to be a member of up to 50 groups.

The tips below can help you make the most out of LinkedIn Groups.

 First, you need to diversify. There are always certain groups that we will feel more around than others.  LinkedIn has a good number of military oriented affinity groups and these are the ones service members typically join first.  I’m a Navy Chief….there’s a group for Navy Chiefs…..I know I’ll be among friends…..easy choice.  There’s nothing wrong with joining a group like this, but if this is a far as you go, you’re not likely to grow or expand your network much beyond the military community.

To broaden your horizons and really expand your network, look for affinity groups based upon your actual job in the military.  For example, if you’re an electrical engineer, perhaps you’d find some benefit from joining the over 6,000 members of the Business Industrial Network who’s group page states, “Engineers, Electricians, Mechanics, Maintenance Welcome”.  Those currently on active duty can use this to keep up with the current issues of their industry which is critical for ensuring you’re prepared to jump into the private sector.  And if you’re transitioning from the service, perhaps one of over the 200 job postings in the group may interest you.

In addition to industry affinity groups there are a number of groups that were formed for the purpose of assisting transitioning service members, but be advised, not all of these are created equal.  Some are location-based, such as the Fort Meade Military Transition networking Group and the Camp Lejeune Transition Readiness Seminar Group. The Fort Meade group has over 200 members (about 1/3 are recruiters) and over 850 jobs listed, while the Camp Lejeune group has 89 members (only one with the word Recruiter in their title) and zero jobs. I’m not saying that one group is inherently better than the other (I’m a member of both), but it’s important to know the make up of each, in order understand what they offer.

Other groups with a focus on transitioning veteran have a global audience.  Although the following is not all-inclusive, the following are just three in particular that I’ve found helpful as far as actionable advice: Military-Civilian Career Coaching Connection (MC4), Boots To Loafers, and Recruiters 4 Veterans. Sites like these are less likely to have jobs posted, but will instead be more focused on offering genuine tips on the transition process.

There are two ways to find these niche groups. The easiest method is to use the search field at the top of the LinkedIn page and type in key words by either title or location (engineer, recruiter, nurse, Baltimore, San Diego, Austin).  Another way (and I think more effective method)  is to look at the bottom of the profiles of your connections to see which groups they are a member of.  No matter how you do it, being active in even a few LinkedIn groups from the different categories will set you up for success.

Second, you need to participate. You build your network by meeting people, and meeting people on LinkedIn occurs when you join in on some discussions.  See an article you like? Share it with a group.  Did someone in the group post something you find relevant? Share it with your connections.  Have a thought? Add your two cents in the comments section.  These are the things that bring people together.  Participation is the catalyst to check out the profiles of other individuals (which is a great way find ways to improve your own).  This is what leads to connections and allows your network to grow exponentially.

Third, know your audience. Preaching to the choir might be safest way to communicate, but it never really changes anything.  We need to understand our place in relation to the rest of the group and ensure the things we share are likely to benefit those who will see our message.  A great example of this centered around a recent Forbes.com  article about the value of Non Commissioned Officers. The piece has a different meaning when shared with other military members than if it is shared by/with private sector recruiters and hiring managers.

In fact, one of the coaches, (Joseph Paschal) in the MC4 discussion thread put it very well saying, “this article has resonated well on many other veteran sites because it tells veterans what they want to hear. However, it is a grossly obtuse analogy that really does not help veterans because it may lead NCOs (and others) to believe that they can make the case for being qualified for positions simply because they have such solid experience as NCOs (or veterans).”

 Joe wasn’t saying anything bad about the content of the article, but I think his point about how the message was being perceived was spot on. (See the full discussion thread here.)

We need to tell private industry about the military and, at the same time, tell the military about private industry.  These are two distinct conversations and the way we have those conversations on LinkedIn is to be active in many groups, and to share the appropriate message with each.

Veteran participation in industry specific groups helps us all. By sharing relevant articles and making insightful comments we can knock down the walls of misperception.  Even more to the point, we do far more good for our own post military employment chances by participating in the civilian networking groups than we do by simply hanging out with our closest friends telling each other how great we are.

Its time to quit holding up the wall and get out there on the dance floor.