Ask Annie

What job-hunting military veterans need to know

August 5, 2011: 11:36 AM ET

Those who have been away from the civilian workforce for a while face special challenges when searching for work, but they also have certain rights.

By Anne Fisher, contributor

FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: I read with interest your June 10 column on how to stay upbeat during a long job search, because I've been trying to help a close friend who has been out of work since he came back from active duty in Afghanistan five months ago. He got a lot of advanced computer training in the Army, but it doesn't seem to be helping him find work, and I suspect that's partly because he needs to rewrite his resume.

Another thing: He had a job before he left, but his employer gave it away (to a relative, no less) while he was gone. I think I remember reading somewhere that my friend has a legal right to get his old job back. It would be great if that were true, but is it? — Concerned Civilian

Dear C.C.: No question about it, returning to the private sector is proving difficult for the roughly 2 million veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, among whom unemployment has been hovering at around 11% for more than a year now.

"With so many servicemen and women doing their duty and then electing to leave the service, the problem of getting vets jobs is huge, especially in this job market that is terrible for almost everyone," notes Mark Lyden, a job recruiter and author of Veterans: Do This! Get Hired! Proven Advice for Veterans Who Need a Job.

One obstacle for returning military personnel, he points out, is that civilian employers "are programmed to look for certain things, and even the most highly qualified vets often just don't give employers what they are looking for in the way they are looking for it. In other words, what vets say and how they say it doesn't match the script that companies are using to find employees."

Since you mention that your friend's resume may need an overhaul, consider these four tips from Lyden on how to make a CV match up with employers' "scripts":

1. Count your hours. Most hiring managers "really have no clue how many hours per week military people put into their work, so you should mention it," says Lyden. "In the part of your resume that describes your experience, put in something like, 'Worked an average of 60 hours per week. This conveys that, if there are occasions where a 60-hour week is needed to get something critical done, you're used to that, so you're up to the task."

2. Numbers are crucial. "Employers love to see experience with numbers attached," notes Lyden. "It suggests you will do the same for them. So you should always cite things like time saved and cost savings you achieved, with specifics about hours and dollars saved per week, per month, or per year." Another important number: How many people reported to you.

Use numerals instead of writing out these figures, Lyden adds: "If you are glancing at two resumes and one says, 'One hundred thousand dollars saved' and the other says, '$100,000 saved', see how the numerals pop out at you?"

3. Mention your years of experience right up front. Lyden acknowledges that starting a resume with an "objective statement" has lost favor with some recruiters and hiring managers lately, but he believes vets still need these brief introductory paragraphs.

"An objective section lets you set the tone of your entire resume quickly, so it's the perfect place to say what you want and how many years of experience you have," he says. "Writing, for instance, 'A full-time project management position where I can utilize my eight years of experience' immediately tells the hiring manager where you see yourself fitting into the company."

4. List security clearances separately. "Too many veterans have some kind of clearance and don't mention it, or else they bury it in the text of their resume somewhere," Lyden observes. Instead, create a separate heading under which you state your clearance.

"If you're applying for a job that has a clearance requirement, the employer quickly spots it, and you go into the 'yes' pile," Lyden says. "But even if the job doesn't require a clearance, clearly highlighting that you have it makes you stand out from the pack. It also indicates that you're trustworthy and honest, or you wouldn't have gotten it."

One other thought: The military life is loaded with acronyms that are foreign to civilians, so vets need to make sure that their duties and accomplishments are translated into plain English on their resumes.

That said, it's entirely possible that your friend doesn't need to be job hunting at all -- that is, he is entitled to get back the position he lost. A federal law called the Uniformed Services Employment & Re-Employment Act (USERRA) says that employers must reinstate returning servicemen and women in their old jobs, provided that vets who have been away on active duty for more than 180 days notify their former employers within 90 days (preferably in writing) that they're stateside and want to return to work.

You don't say whether your friend notified his employer, or what the company's response was, but even past the 180-day limit, your friend still retains some USERRA rights. Steve Miller, an employment attorney at Fisher & Phillips in Chicago, recommends contacting the local office of the Department of Veterans Affairs and explaining the situation. "Sometimes a phone call from them is all it takes" to get a vet's old job back, he says.

"Most employers really want to put returning veterans back to work," Miller adds. "Usually, you can establish a dialogue and work something out. So the first step is to get that dialogue started."

Talkback: If you're a hiring manager, what advice would you give veterans who are job hunting? If you're a veteran who has returned to the civilian workforce, what helped you most? Leave a comment below.

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About This Author
Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

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