Service members are a valuable but under-used talent pool. They have demonstrated leadership, accountability, discipline, problem-solving, and critical decision-making in ambiguous circumstances and have the potential to bring high value to any organization. But leaving military service and entering the civilian workforce is a significant transition, professionally and personally. Veterans want and need support for that transition, and the data show they need more than what is currently offered by Federal entities or would-be employers.
Something is missing. Transitioning Veterans into the civilian workforce requires a new approach, one that supports them holistically as individuals and professionals — through leaving, recruiting, and onboarding — to set them, and their hiring organizations, up for success. Both the military, VA, and other federal entities tasked with supporting transition and potential employers — public- and private-sector — have opportunities to do more to facilitate successful transitions.
Veterans face a complex transition to the civilian workforce
Military service is more than a job. For many, it’s an identity, a way of life, a source of fulfillment and purpose, and a community. Even in the best circumstances, transition is challenging. Service members have to redefine themselves, navigate new expectations, grieve aspects of their prior life, and adapt to new cultural and workplace norms.
Many transitions are more complicated. Reasons for leaving vary — so do people’s experiences in service. Some are ready, and some are not; some leave on good terms, and some leave under less favorable circumstances with far-reaching impacts, seen and unseen. Making a successful transition from service requires hard work from the service member, over an extended timeframe, beginning with preparing to leave and continuing well into the new role.
Preparing to leave
In the US, approximately 200,000 men and women transition out of military service each year. Research shows that these service members are not getting what they need from current programs such as the US military’s Transition Assistance Program (TAP). Designed to provide tactical support and general civilian information, the three-day course lacks the depth and context to cover the intricacies of different career fields. 70% of service leavers attend the course within the year of their separation, leaving little time for reflection or career research, especially if they will need an immediate income.
The Armed Services do a superb job training Marines, sailors, soldiers, airmen and guardians. Now we need to take that same focused approach and care to prepare our service members to return to the civilian world with the tools and support they need to thrive in their next endeavors.”
Senators Angus King, I-Maine, and Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., in a letter to the service chiefs (quoted in Military Times)
Shockingly, 34% of Veterans report receiving no support or training for transitioning to the civilian workforce,1 and 44% feel unprepared to transition to civilian life.1
Unlike the structured, straightforward process of securing one’s next position in the military, the rules of the game in the civilian job search are quite different. In fact, 69% consider “finding a job” to be the greatest challenge in their transition1. In one study, 98% of Veterans cite at least one challenge in seeking employment, and 68% report three or more challenges. 60% struggled to translate their military experience into relevant terminology for a civilian employer1. In addition, they often fail to highlight valuable learning and interpersonal skills that are commonplace in the military and much-needed by many employers.
Veterans are left with the task of figuring out how to translate their skills and experiences and adopt a new vernacular if they want recruiters, and often AI algorithms, to see their time in service as valuable and appropriate for civilian positions. Because Veterans lack the direct experience listed in a job description, they are often matched to roles that are below their abilities. This has ramifications for their confidence, job satisfaction, and career and earnings potential.
“I am about to start transitioning out of the military and it is the only job I have ever had. I don’t have any idea how to do it or what types of careers I should be looking at. I don’t know how to translate my skills to other professions.”
Making the transition work
- Cultural. While finding a job may feel like the biggest hurdle, the work doesn’t end there. Veterans must adapt to a new work environment that’s often very different from the hierarchical, yet team-oriented, culture of service, honor, loyalty, tradition, and respect that they are used to. Many (60%) express concerns about cultural barriers in the workplace, and 48% worry that managers don’t understand the culture they came from1. Veterans have to learn a new set of expectations about how organizations operate, as well as norms around how employees approach work and interact with one another. These often are not explicit, and the cost of a cultural misstep can be high. Veterans are left to observe and pick up the subtleties of what norms do or don’t translate from their prior workplace as they absorb the “culture shock.”
- Skills and advancement. Veterans often don’t feel their skills are valued in the civilian workforce. While 71% feel employers respect their service, roughly 50% of Veterans believe their employers don’t understand the transferability of their skills1. This has implications for advancement. If you’re not being seen for all you have to offer, you less likely to get opportunities for promotion. The research supports this: 59% of civilian-employed Veterans report having fewer development opportunities than they’d expected to have in their civilian careers, and many feel they are overqualified for their civilian roles.
While the employer might not have grasped what I brought to the table, it’s also on me. I didn’t know what I brought to the table. Am I a leader? Am I a statistician? Have to figure out ‘who am I’ and sense of self before anything else.
- Social. The social adjustment to the civilian workforce is also substantial. Not only do Veterans miss the built-in community and camaraderie of military life, some struggle to build relationships with their civilian colleagues. Roughly 37% of Veterans feel they won’t be able to relate to their co-workers, and 32% feel their non-Veteran coworkers are intimidated by them. This leaves Veterans with a lot to work through to develop healthy workplace relationships and find a sense of belonging. Far from a nice-to-have, research has shown that belonging is critical for engagement and high performance at work.
- Psychological. Integrating into the civilian workforce also involves complex psychological adjustments. Veterans struggle to find meaning and purpose in civilian jobs that don’t involve serving and protecting their country. But the struggle goes deeper. Military service, roles, and rank can become central to one’s identity. Service members give so much of themselves to their military duties, even putting their lives at risk, that conflating self with role may be a natural consequence of the job. It follows that those who have left the service and are no longer in their roles may feel lost and adrift, questioning who they are, and experiencing grief or a fractured sense of self.
- Practical and psychosocial. Veterans are simultaneously juggling practical and psychosocial challenges. They may feel the compiling grief of lost culture, community, purpose, and identity. They may be settling into new housing or a new location away from their last duty station. Family roles may be shifting, with spouses and children starting new chapters. And, as roughly 27% of Veterans have a service-connected disability, physical and mental health challenges may further complicate daily life.
“It is clear that transition is not just about meeting a series of practical needs (housing, employment, etc.) but is also a journey of identify; a series of emotional transitions which protagonists must come to terms with, and negotiate their place in the world around them.”
Forces in Mind Trust: Lifting Our Sights Beyond 2030, May 2021
Transitioning from military service to the civilian workforce requires a lot from Veterans. They use multiple services and tools already but want tools customized to their unique needs and specific company or profession, as well as one-on-one, personalized support like coaching and mentorship. Veterans are also looking to their civilian employers to not only provide career opportunities but also support their success in the complex transition to civilian life.
Coaching provides tailored support to meet unique transition needs
Coaching is a viable solution to the breadth and complexity involved in transitioning to civilian life. The partnership between coach and client helps the client overcome obstacles, set and realize goals, and show up at their best in their personal and professional lives. It’s proven to develop the mindsets, behaviors, and outcomes that boost well-being, relationships, and performance at work.
Coaching is particularly well-suited for supporting Veterans through transition because it can help them:
- Learn the language and translate prior experience into business vernacular
- Recognize the value their skills bring to the civilian workforce
- Address stressors and uncertainties in the civilian job search
- Build the skills and behaviors to ramp quickly into a new role, company, and culture
- Build a strong sense of meaning and purpose outside of one’s military career
- Enhance skills to develop strong relationships, sense of camaraderie, and networks in a new environment
- Support making informed decisions about career development
- Explore values and aspirations: “Who am I outside of the military, and who do I want to be?”
- Process the loss associated with transitioning while developing meaningful new goals and vision
- Recalibrate assumptions and design a lifestyle to fit their new goals and desires
Take action, see results: A pilot program helps veterans leverage strengths and overcome challenges
In 2022, BetterUp launched a 6-month pilot to test the value of coaching for transitioning service members. Seventy-three transitioning service members in the UK and US were given unlimited access to BetterUp’s human transformation platform, including support from a certified professional coach, access to specialist coaches, and access to a digital library of over 3K learning resources.
Before beginning, service members shared their motivations for participating. While their top reported motivations centered on work (e.g. career development, influencing and leading others), their priorities shifted once they started. Career development remained top — 45% of coaching sessions focused on it, but well-being ranked second with 22% of sessions, followed by communication (9%), and time management / productivity (8%). Among specialist coaches, service members favored nutrition, then sleep, then communication-effectiveness coaching. This tells us that service members have a real need to strengthen their well-being, a theme also reflected in our assessment data.
“I have been in and out of my head with bouts of negative self-confidence …I often get distracted with things that don’t move the needle forward for me.”
At the start of coaching, participants completed BetterUp’s proprietary Whole Person Assessment, giving them insight into their baseline mindsets, behaviors, strengths and development areas. Baseline data show that transitioning service members have valuable leadership and problem-solving skills, such as encouraging participation, and recognizing, empowering, and coaching others. They are above average in a desire to learn and grow, and take responsibility for their actions in service of realizing goals. This is good news for transitioning service members as organizations like Deloitte report that occupations that prioritize these skills will account for two-thirds of all jobs by 2030.
While our baseline data showed they have strong leadership and problem-solving skills, service members scored well below average in areas like focus, self-awareness, optimism, stress management, and strategic planning. They also scored below average in work-life balance, purpose and meaning, self-compassion, and rest. When these skills are low, it’s difficult to use and adapt the skills we have or develop new ones to thrive in new environments and new roles. These findings were echoed in the sentiments shared by transitioning service members in the pilot.
After working with a coach, service leavers expressed growth in critical areas like optimism, hope, and confidence:
“It’s only been the first session and I feel there’s hope to accomplish what I want. Having this hope is more than I’ve had for the last 18 months. I am feeling so grateful.”
“I wanted to say that this has been an extremely valuable and enhancing experience. I’m more excited than ever about my transition from military to civilian.”
“I love that I leave our sessions with new insights about myself and practical actions I can take to improve my well-being.”
“I feel more confident and less stressed. I realize I can control my thoughts and therefore my actions. I tend not to ruminate or catastrophize with the practical actions I take when I feel anxious.”
“I have developed a personal brand, identified my strengths and weaknesses and thought about how to use my strengths to improve my weaknesses. I pursued a new role that aligns with my personal brand.”
“I feel like I’m making progress in becoming more self-aware and grounded in understanding and accepting my personal values better.”
Pilot participants rated their experience favorably — 100% found value in the coaching program. In fact, 11% of individual coaching sessions were reported as “life changing.”
Show commitment to Veterans, enable successful transitions
The pilot shows that Veterans need support beyond what’s currently available in order to bolster the skills that will enable them to use what they have, learn new ones and successfully adapt to new environments and roles. The opportunity for military and Federal entities as well as potential employers is to provide personalized support for both the practical and logistical aspects of transition as well as the mental and social aspects, such as grieving and developing new identities, communities and purpose long after their military career.
Our service members have so much more to give. Supporting their transition more holistically is not just in the best interest of our service members, but also our organizations and communities and is a tangible and effective way to commit to our Veterans.
Learn more about how BetterUp can support you or your teams to combat burnout, boost well-being and performance by scheduling a briefing.