Veterans Can Help Displaced Workers Crack the Code on Unemployment
With more than 33 million unemployed in the wake of COVID-19, the nation faces an employment crisis of a scope and scale not seen since the Great Depression. Millions of American workers are in a race to translate their career experiences to “pandemic-proof” careers, transitioning from industries that are dying to those that are thriving. Retail and hospitality workers are reinventing themselves as in-demand IT support specialists or Certified Nursing Assistants, but few of those transitions can be done successfully without substantial education and training.
Most workers have never been faced with the prospect of re-training for entirely new roles and industries to remain economically relevant — and employed. However, there is a segment of our economy for whom re-skilling — and reinvention — is commonplace. In the military, lifelong learning is part of the mission. For the 80 percent of active-duty military retire or leave the military before full retirement eligibility, reinventing themselves to thrive in “second” or even “third” careers is a way of life.
For the military, upskilling and reskilling is nothing new. In fact, it’s the norm. Veterans have always had to translate experience from the military transcript to civilian jobs that might not be familiar with military terms and roles. They understand that “customer service” can look a lot like “bedside manner” and that valuable skills like resilience, teamwork, and problem-solving can actually translate across sectors.
Even within the military, service members understand the premium of “interoperable skills” that can unlock their career potential. During my time on active-duty in the United States Navy, I served as an operations officer onboard USS Crommelin (FFG 37). While the sailors on our ship had to learn processes that were specific only to our ship, they also knew the importance of training on the interoperable systems, developing skills that can translate from “ship to ship.”
Service members continuously upskill to earn promotions, reskill through specialized training schools, or (at least years ago) participate in “REFTRA”, the military abbreviation for “refresher training.” The job of building and maintaining skills is nothing new, and it never ends.
For the vast majority of military members who transition into veteran status before full-retirement, the expectation of reskilling for civilian industries is a given, but skills developed through military experience have a surprising degree of relevance and importance in the private sector.
Subject matter within a specific industry — even hard skills like software and hardware — can be taught and learned. However, members of the military have often already learned much harder to master skills like time management, sticking to a budget, and managing a diverse team, which can take years to perfect. Employers and labor groups have taken note of the benefits of these skills in the workplace. The Utility Workers Military Assistance Program retrains veterans as technicians in electrical, water, and other utility industries, while the Microsoft Software & Systems Academy trains transitioning service members for careers in cloud development or cloud administration.
It runs counter to the popular conception of military life, but service members also have to learn a high degree of empathy and an ability to operate within highly-diverse teams. Officers and enlisted personnel alike are tasked with managing and collaborating with individuals from a wide-range of socio-economic backgrounds. The military has become more diverse, with more women in leadership roles. First-generation immigrants, college graduates, and individuals from rural areas, suburbs and the inner city are all tasked with working together to advance the mission.
More broadly, concepts that are core to the military’s system of education and credentialing are gaining adoption among civilian employers, who are grasping for more and better signals of talent in an era of endemic skills-gaps, even before the pandemic. Perhaps it’s no surprise that badging and micro-credentialing, which have centuries-old military origins, have gained traction in civilian industry in recent years. Industry giants like IBM and PWC have embraced badging as a way to help employees signal “hard-to-measure” skills.
However, cracking the code on unemployment is about much more than learning a technical skill. It’s about the foundational skills that may not show up on a resume or a transcript, which are actually the “secret ingredient” to employability in today’s volatile labor market. Emerging research underscores just how essential these types of “mobility skills” embodied by veterans are for workers-in-transition. Researchers at the Federal Reserve Banks of Philadelphia and Cleveland recently published research that creates "similarity scores" to understand how skills from one sector map to another.
Veteran transitions can tell us a lot about navigating the complex world of and hiring. That’s not to say that the transition from uniform to the civilian workforce is always easy. From my work with veteran’s reentry organizations, I have seen firsthand the struggles of veterans grappling with homelessness, substance abuse, unemployment, and post-traumatic stress. I also saw how the powerful drive for personal development — and reinvention — can help any individual find a new path, even against the longest odds for a successful transition.
The pandemic has been the ultimate rude awakening, for us all, about the vulnerabilities — and inequities — that still exist within our economy and society. Just six months ago, record low unemployment and the tightest labor market in history had lulled the country into a false sense of economic security. Now, millions of American workers — including veterans — are facing unprecedented economic turmoil.
As displaced workers navigate the labor market riptide, they can draw on the experiences of veterans who have retooled for new and often unfamiliar industries. Our nation is in a fight for our own public health and economic security that, in many ways, requires personal sacrifices typically reserved for men and women in uniform. Feelings of isolation, fears for personal health and safety, post-traumatic stress, and persevering in harsh environments are the sort of hardships to which service members are all too accustomed. Overcoming these challenges won’t be easy — but, take it from a veteran, it can be done.
Lieutenant Commander (ret.) Kim Mitchell is a U.S. Navy Veteran and former military aide to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Obama White House. She is currently senior vice president for military and veterans outreach at National University.