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Veterans Day 2019: Employing Our Veterans

Kristin Saboe and Laura Tate

This is our second installment in a two-part series on increasing our military literacy. Last week’s Newsbrief talked about how the military is organized, and this week we will touch upon key concepts underlying why it may be difficult for our military community members to transition to civilian employment. Approximately 200,000 service members leaving the U.S. military annually. Although less than 1% of our U.S. population is currently serving in uniform, approximately 8% of our U.S. population has served and are considered veterans. Additionally, there are an estimated 690,000 military spouses in the U.S. The military community may not be in the majority, but they have served an outsize role to ensure those that have not served can enjoy a life of freedom.

There are numerous ways to serve in the military based upon the type of service component, role, job/occupation, and types of experiences to which someone is exposed. It is critical to recognize that service comes in many forms – uniformed military, military family members, civilian government employees, and contractors all serve the Department of Defense’s military mission in unique and impactful ways. Serving in the military is a total family experience. When a service member serves, so does his or her spouse and children, as the family members must maintain continuity through regular deployments, moves around the world, and conditions that often prevent ever feeling settled into a career for a military spouses or education for military children. 

Often civilian employers, such as Fortune 500 companies with veterans employment programs, will use terms such as “our military community” to be inclusion of veterans and their family members who enabled them to serve. Noting the countless ways people can serve also underscores the variety of populations that may at some point face a transition from operating in a strong military culture to being employed in a foreign-feeling civilian culture.

The strong culture present in the military means that service men and women and their families can feel disconnected or as though they quite literally live in a different culture from that of the United States (or their home country). When veterans venture into the civilian world to work after they leave the military, they often must adapt to a new culture much like someone would if they moved from France to the United States, for example. This cultural divide between the cultures of the United States’ civilian population and that of our military population is often called the mil-civ divide. The Veterans Well-Being Survey (Edelman, 2018) and a recent study by Shepherd, Kay, and Gray (2019) provide a snapshot into the ways perceptions of veterans may disadvantage them after they leave the military and enter civilian workplaces. This research is evidence of the effects of such a cultural divide lending to misconceptions about the capabilities of veterans. In fact, several applied researchers have reported that veterans, compared to civilians, demonstrate greater agility and leadership, among other critical workplace skills (e.g., Korn Ferry, IVMF).

The civ-mil cultural divide can also mean that veterans and military spouses struggle to use the same technical nomenclature and articulate their skills, competencies, and experience in such a way that nonmilitary understand their unique capabilities or how they might best fit in a civilian organization. We call this the “military skills gap” to describe the apparent discrepancy between alike but differently named skills that can prevent veterans and military spouses from adequately describing to a potential employer their past experience, qualifications, and value.

The combination of a civ-mil cultural divide, skills lost in translation leading to a skills gap, and the potential underemployment of our veterans and military spouses means that veterans issues are prevalent and deserve attention. Although veteran unemployment rates are historically low, at 3.2% as of the Department of Labor’s October 2019 report, the reality is that we do have consistent measures of underemployment. Potential higher rates of underemployment may be systemically driven by a culture and skills gap. In a recent report published by the White House Council on Economic Advisors, it is estimated that spouses of military members have five times the unemployment rate of veterans and that nearly 50% are underemployed. On average, military spouses are more educated but paid less in comparison to their civilian counterparts. This study and others (or the lack of) highlight another need – robust research on the topic of veterans and military spouse employment that dives deeper than descriptive statistics and convenience samples.

As I-O psychologists we are uniquely positioned to be the change for this community in terms of establishing a rigorous knowledge base through research identifying the actual transition issues, employment experiences, and top trends for veterans, military spouses, and their children and caregivers. We as I-O psychologists are also capable of driving workplace cultures and conditions that support and enable our military community members to thrive by providing accommodations, appropriate onboarding and culture translation, unbiased hiring practices, and work experiences that provide the purpose and meaning that our military community members are thirsty to feel upon leaving a community that formerly was their sole purpose and identity. The military might be thought of as the nation’s largest gated community – when someone leaves those gates for civilian employment, it’s a whole new world to them. Show them grace, provide support, and allow them to thrive.

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