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, 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. More

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