Editor’s note: The following commentary was contributed by retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Paul Johnson. The content may be edited for clarity, style and length.
Taking off the uniform of the U.S. armed forces for the last time is one of life’s significant events. Whether leaving military service eagerly or reluctantly, there’s a sense of momentous changes. Changes in work, changes for family, changes in lifestyle in terms of moves, deployments, family separations. Taken collectively, these changes can range from delightful to debilitating. For those who have worn the uniform for 20+ years, the transition is a big deal, to say the least.
Fortunately, there is a broad effort across government and industry to help veterans make the various transitions associated with taking off the uniform for good. That’s not to say it’s become easy. The stressors are numerous and any given veteran’s ability to handle those stressors varies. I’d like to offer a few thoughts to industry employers seeking to potentially hire veterans and to veterans themselves.
If you’re an employer, you fully appreciate today’s competitive hiring environment. Certain skills are in high demand and in many cases don’t come cheaply. If you’re in an industry requiring employees with security clearances, it gets even harder. As you search for those with the right skills and attributes for your firm, I offer a few suggestions regarding veterans.
First and most important, while we all wear the veteran label proudly, please don’t put us in a single category. Our backgrounds, education, values and work experience can be as varied as the rest of the population. In short, making assumptions about veterans can be hazardous. But I will offer one broad generalization that might be helpful to employers. When you meet a veteran who has retired after 20+ years of active service, you’ve just met a problem solver.
Their individual work experiences may be quite varied, but in a career spanning 20 or more years, such individuals have risen to a rank (enlisted or officer) where their real benefit to any organization (military or civilian) is the ability to break down and solve complex problems. They have moved through multiple organizations and units, sometimes with dramatically different missions and have, over time, developed a capacity learn, absorb, understand and adapt.
I submit those are just the kind of people you’re probably looking for beyond a narrowly defined skill set. Will they understand your organization on day one? Nope. Not only won’t they understand, they might even feel a little disoriented. That’s OK, because they’ve been there before. Give them their parameters and a bit of time and space and they’ll adapt just as they’ve adapted over an entire career.
If you’re one of these long-serving military members I’ve just described, thank you for your service. Just as important, please thank your family for their service; there’s a strong chance they’ve played a role in your decision to make this transition. As you start down a new path, don’t just look at yourself in terms of your specialty code; consider yourself the problem solver I’ve described. You’re far more than your AFSC, MOS or any other skill identifier.
With that in mind, consider continuing to solve problems in support of our nation. One obvious avenue is to become a civil servant and do work similar to what you’ve been doing, without the long deployments, extended TDY’s and multiple moves. You can have some life stability as you continue to serve.
The other option you may not have considered is in the consulting field as a professional problem solver. You might find your experience and skills in the military can help solve problems in another agency serving to leverage the best practices and ideas across government. The consulting profession is different than the military, to be sure. You’ll be in the commercial world, where revenue and profits matter. You’ll be in a field with pretty intense competition. You’ll be expected to perform and deliver.
Should that intimidate you? Not at all. You’re stepping away from a career where lives are at risk, the nation’s security is at stake and you’ve performed well for years.
Unlike civil service, in consulting you’ll likely work a variety of problem sets, seeing different agencies with different missions and cultures and their own unique challenges – which helps keep you fresh. You’ll be joining a diverse group of talented, motivated and hardworking co-workers. They’ll know more about consulting than you, but you’ll bring relevant experiences that many of them have never had and likely never will. Together you can make a pretty dynamic team.
In short, if you’re looking to hire veterans and you run across one retiring after a couple of decades or more of service, you’re looking at a problem solver. Don’t pass them up lightly.
If you’re one of those with long service, think about continuing to solve problems for your country either in the civil service or the consulting profession. They’re different lines of work, but both solve problems in service of our nation, something you already know how to do.
Maj. Gen. Paul Johnson is a retired two-star general in the U.S. Air Force and a Senior Strategic Advisor with Grant Thornton Public Sector, which actively supports and recruits from the nationwide Hiring Our Heroes program.