Translating military experience into a civilian career

June 19, 2012: 11:17 AM ET

It's often far from clear how veterans' skills fit into the business world, but some employers are finding ways to bridge the gap.

FORTUNE -- When a young Navy veteran applied for a job at AT&T recently, he described himself on his resume as "a mechanic." Then he sat down with Chris Norton, whose title at the company is Military Talent Attraction Manager.

"When I started to dig a little deeper and asked him some questions, it turned out that this candidate had led a team of 10 helicopter mechanics and was in charge of approximately $200 million worth of equipment," says Norton, himself an Iraq veteran with 16 years' experience as a U.S. Army officer who still serves in the Army Reserve. "All this responsibility placed on a person in his early 20s demonstrated great leadership ability. But you would never have known that from his resume.

"We in the military are horrible at selling ourselves to employers," Norton adds. "We don't learn how to think of ourselves in terms of individual achievements, because the emphasis [in the military] is always on the team. So it's common for applicants and interviewers to be talking past each other."

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That disconnect is a big problem, and likely to get bigger. In addition to the 100,000 soldiers who have arrived home from Iraq in the past six months, about 90,000 more are due to return from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. In May, the unemployment rate for Iraq- and Afghanistan-era veterans jumped to almost 13%, up sharply from 9% in April. For young male vets, ages 18 to 24, the jobless rate has stood at a staggering 29% for over a year now.

Small wonder, then, that the federal government is launching a plethora of programs designed to help returning vets find civilian jobs. One of Uncle Sam's new moves: By November, the Department of Defense will provide all departing military personnel with one-on-one coaching on how to describe their experience in terms that non-military types can grasp.

Good idea. In a survey last year by Monster.com, 77% of employers said job seekers needed to do a better job translating their military experience into language that hiring managers recognize; and a new study by the nonprofit research group Center for New American Security reports that 60% of employers see the translation gap as the biggest obstacle to bringing more vets on board.

On Chris Norton's watch, AT&T (T) has come up with its own military skills translator, an online tool for matching military occupational codes with job openings at the company. (Monster.com also offers one that any employer or job hunter can use.) But the company, which is a member of the Obama Administration's Veterans Jobs Bank Program, has gone much further.

For instance, AT&T offers Careers4Vets, a coaching program where at least 700 recent veterans have gotten career advice from about 200 AT&T employees who are veterans themselves. The company also sponsors a Veterans Talent Network where veterans can sign up for newsletters and text messages about job openings and events.

For employers who would like to recruit more veterans but aren't sure where to start, Norton has two suggestions. "First, ask the vets you already have to get involved," he says. "If you send out an email to all employees, asking anyone who's a veteran if they'd like to help, you might be surprised at how many people step forward."

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AT&T's Veterans Resource Group began way back in the early '80s as a small band of Viet Nam-era veterans who got together and started a newsletter. The group now has 4,300 members and has been essential to the success of AT&T's programs.

Second, Norton suggests joining forces with one of the many organizations set up to match returning veterans with jobs -- for example, the 100,000 Jobs Mission. Led by J.P. Morgan Chase (JPM), the group's 49 member companies (including Fortune's parent, Time Warner (TWX)) have hired 12,179 veterans in the past three months and will hold a national job fair in Chicago on July 12.

"The great thing about the 100,000 Jobs Mission and similar organizations is that they give you a chance to compare notes and swap best practices with other companies, so you can get up to speed pretty quickly on what works and what doesn't," Norton says. "There's no sense in reinventing the wheel."

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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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