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Vets' transition to civilian jobs often includes a perceived step down

Chris Hellie, a former Army captain, speaks with a recruiter from Citibank at a job fair last month in Washington, D.C. The graduate student is looking to break into the corporate sector. He said as a veteran looking for a job "you just have to come to an acceptance" about starting over in the civilian market.

MEGAN MCCLOSKEY/STARS AND STRIPES

By MEGAN MCCLOSKEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 9, 2012

WASHINGTON — From the lofty responsibilities of war to the bottom rung of the career ladder: That’s the reality that veterans often face when entering the civilian job market.

For Chris Hellie, a former captain in the Army, that meant taking a job managing a deli department at Target.

“Can you imagine the step down that was from leading 180 people in combat?” he said. “It’s definitely a blow to one’s pride.”

Civilian employers, particularly in today’s treacherous job market, typically offer veterans positions that fall short of the level of responsibility they had in the military.

“The reality is people in the military do things their civilian peers won’t do until their 30s or 40s,” said Tom Tarantino, legislative director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “They hold management positions at 25 years old that someone in the civilian world has to work 15 years to get to.”

But veterans don’t get to cut in the corporate line, and they struggle with their new place in the food chain.

Some view it as an insult to be asked to start at the bottom, according to Nathan Smith, a former Marine Corps captain and executive director of the nonprofit Hire Heroes, which helps veterans find employment.

“They’re pumped up so much in the military because of the wars [that] they leave the military with a sense of entitlement,” Smith said.

Michelle Saunders, a director at Hire Heroes, said, “They think, ‘I served my country. I deserve an $80,000-a-year job,’”

One of the toughest challenges with officers and senior enlisted is that they’re used to being big fish and define themselves by their rank, she said.

Both they and younger vets “feel like they’re being demoted,” said Patty Sauka, a career coach with VA for Vets.

She’s found that about half of the veterans she counsels are willing to take whatever job they can to get their foot in the door, and the other half refuse to take anything less than the level of position they had in the military.

It’s a hard road for the latter, she said.

“If you think you’re going to slide into the same kind of position, you’re going to be heartbroken,” said John Wright, a retired sergeant first class who has been looking for a job in logistics for a year.

In his search, the 40-year-old has found that an MBA is required to qualify for positions in the civilian world that equal the level of responsibility of the job he held in the Army.

But having an education doesn’t necessarily close the gap with peers.

Army Reserve Spc. Greg Baker graduated from college at an older age because of a two-year break for a deployment to Iraq in 2008. And instead of doing internships in the summer — the kind that often end for his peers with job offers — he was doing Army advanced training courses and deploying to Africa and Haiti.

All that experience gave him strong leadership skills and the ability to handle himself under pressure, but employers “look at you and only see that you don’t have any experience in an office,” he said.

Tarantino said corporate employers often don’t fully register what a military resume means.

He recalled one interview he did after leaving the Army, where he told a potential employer about his experience as acting company commander for six months in charge of more than 150 soldiers.

“And then the next thing out of [the interviewer’s] mouth is ‘In this job you would manage 30 people. Can you handle that level of responsibility?’” Tarantino said. “They have no cultural connection to what military service means.”

At the same time, veterans “need to understand ,,, you’re new to the corporate world,” said Lt. Col. Kathryn Poynton, a military liaison at the Chamber of Commerce.

Employers at the Department of Veterans Affairs job fair in Washington last month said that management skills need to be paired with business acumen, learned from time on the job.

Veterans would do best to lose the chip on their shoulder and realize they are taking a step back to move forward, Dave Wallace, military relations manager for Lockheed Martin, said.

“You have to understand the business side, which is totally different from the military,” he said, adding that companies are eager for the work ethic of veterans and will hire them if they can accept that it’s a transition.

Smith said that means relinquishing an identity that is most important to you.

Servicemembers are used to proudly wearing their valor on their chest and having that distinguish them. Yet medals hold no value in the civilian world.

You can’t use “courage” as a bullet point on a resume, Smith said.

“It’s not a selling point.”

mccloskeym@stripes.osd

@MegMcCloskey

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