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A Career After Special Ops: Preparing for the Civilian Workforce

By Leischen Stelter, editor of In Public Safety

Part of commemorating those who served in our armed forces is recognizing the many challenges facing our military servicemen and -women. One of the greatest challenges for service members is making the leap from a career in the military to one in the civilian work force. Especially for our military’s elite special operations personnel, making this career transition can prove to be difficult and unsettling.

[Related: Beyond the Military: What Will you do as a Civilian?]

Learning from Elite Veterans

In June 2016, attendees of the Mid-Atlantic INLETS seminar had the opportunity to hear from one of the nation’s most famous elite military members, Robert O’Neill. O’Neill was the Navy SEAL credited with firing the shots that killed Osama bin Laden. His keynote speech addressed the hardship required to reach that level of service and the perseverance and focus required to undertake dangerous and sophisticated missions.

After his retirement from the Navy, O’Neill realized that even with his elite training and impressive military background, getting a job in the civilian work force was uncharted territory. In 2013, he co-founded Your Grateful Nation (YGN), a non-profit organization dedicated to helping special operations veterans successfully transition to a new career after the military.

His co-founder, and current executive director, Rob Clapper, had a similar experience when he retired after 12 years of active duty mostly with Army special operations. By chance, Clapper met O’Neill at an event in 2003. “It became apparent that, much like my own transition, finding a new career was an up and down roller coaster with little support or resources,” Clapper said. “We talked about how we felt more apt and willing to pick up a weapon in a combat zone than navigate how to get into the private sector.”

After a few years of discussion, YGN was founded. YGN spends a considerable amount of time assessing the skills of its elite candidates. Candidates undergo a comprehensive assessment of hard and soft skills as well as a personality and driving-force assessment, which takes about three to six months to complete.

YGN mentors then begin an exploratory phase, using information from the assessments to determine the best role and field that would fit the candidate’s strengths. During the exploratory phase, YGN identifies companies that have a corporate culture that aligns with the mentality and strengths of these highly trained military personnel. The organization has found greatest success placing these highly skilled veterans in the financial service and manufacturing sectors— particularly in positions involving operations management, which is a natural fit for these veterans.

[Related: Finding a Purpose in Service and Teamwork Outside the Military]

Veterans, regardless of their rank, often are highly focused and motivated individuals, traits that many corporations are looking for in employees. “One of the best things our candidates bring to the table is that they are driven by results, so they identify the problem, find a solution, and figure out what needs to be done to get from here to there,” said Clapper. However, military members often have a hard time translating their skills, work ethic and other skillsets to potential employers. Clapper and his team work to overcome these obstacles, which is something that all veterans must learn how to do.

Learn to Translate Your Skills

“Veterans must be educated about the importance of skill translation,” said Clapper. In the corporate world, there are human resource managers who are charged with running searches on keywords in resumes. If these keywords are not included on a resume, that candidate is likely passed over. The reality is that most HR professionals do not have an understanding of military language or acronyms. Therefore, it is incumbent on the veteran—with assistance from an organization like YGN—to translate their skills into the language of business.

The Value of Networking and Mentorships

Another important, but often overlooked, job-seeking strategy is the art of networking. “We teach our candidates the importance of business networking and how to build their own network of professional contacts,” said Clapper. “It’s not just about the networking and socialization process, but it’s also about developing new relationships and learning to leverage those relationships to further their transition.”

[Related: Seven Key Factors in the Transition from Military to Civilian Policing]

Networking isn’t just about getting a foot in the door. It’s also an opportunity to learn more about potential positions and companies. Many veterans have never worked in a corporate setting and don’t know what to expect. Therefore, it can be very insightful to talk with people about the field, their job, as well as the skills and educational requirements. Finding mentors to provide information and direction can be one of the greatest assets for veterans looking for a career in the public sector. As veterans build out their professional network, they should keep in mind individuals who would be a good fit as a mentor.

Don’t Hesitate to Ask for Help

Just like asking someone to mentor you, veterans shouldn’t be afraid to seek assistance from a variety of sources. However, this can be hard for many service members. “A lot of time pride gets in the way,” said Clapper, “but if you reach out and learn more about available opportunities and resources, your transition tends to be a lot more successful.”

There are many organizations that help veterans find jobs. For example, American Corporate Partners offers mentors to service members. Also, Hire Heroes is a great organization helping veterans find jobs in the private sector. Veterans should take advantage of the services these organizations offer. After all, our veterans are already equipped with many of the skills that are needed to succeed in the civilian workforce. Now it’s just a matter of applying them in a new field.

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