Imagine having a TOP SECRET clearance to manage navigation systems for RC-130s, leading a squadron of 600 mission-ready airmen, and having a hiring manager ask, "how would you sell me this pen?”

No, you’re not a superhero or the latest villain in a Bond film. You’re a military veteran on the job hunt.

According to a new analysis of LinkedIn data, “Veterans are 70% more likely to take a step back in seniority upon leaving the military. A combination of those factors results in college educated veterans being about 35% more likely to be underemployed." The analysis goes on to say that “Leadership and teamwork skills gained during their service can often be held against them when job hunting.” 

As a black queer Post-9/11 Air Force veteran completing my doctorate, this rings true. Michael Upon Graduation from Basic Training

Most HR reps and hiring managers cannot interpret our skillsets or see how they transfer to civilian roles. Fortunately, transition programs like the Airman Vocational Rehabilitation program and military mentors helped me articulate that being a young airman shouldering multiple responsibilities beholden to a chain of command under one mission exhibited focus, salesmanship, public relations skills, and strong marketing acumen along with my technical skills in electronics and navigation systems. This led to my post-military work in game development, journalism, PR and advertising, art galleries, and recruiting in digital transformation in the best (and toughest) city in the world—New York City.

Integrity first. Service before self. Excellence in all you do. These were the three pillars of duty while I was an Active Duty military serviceman in uniform for the United States Air Force. Based on a 2018 overview of demographics of the U.S. Military from the Center on Foreign Relations, 1.29 million people make up the Active Duty military, less than 0.5 percent of the U.S. population. The hours of training, diligence, and mental dexterity to bring yourself up to speed to not only master your technical skill, but to also build leadership skills, study strategy, be knowledgeable on codes of conduct, and maintain your physical readiness to serve and protect your country can often feel mocked when unskilled hiring managers give a rote list of questions that includes “If you were a dog, what kind would you be?”

Diversity & Inclusion often includes veteran outreach, but with many companies only recently hiring a Head of Diversity & Inclusion to a post in the last three or four years, one can imagine that these company leaders may find preparing training that educate employees and hiring managers on LGBTQIA issues, racial inequalities in the workplace, sexual harassment, and age discrimination a bit overwhelming. So, when a black queer Air Force veteran with a love for the arts and community engagement sits before your hiring committee and humors your request to discuss his canine sensibilities, he’s hardly amused, and often concerned for your company culture. But he’s sympathetic.

In uniform, we have reporting procedures (e.g., referring to all personnel using their rank, using “Yes, sir” and “No, sir,” standing at attention when a higher ranking official enters the room, etc.). Given the shifting landscape of the workforce and the fading of 1950s niceties, casual interactions, although the 21st-century standard, can feel disrespectful, leaving vets to appear clumsy, annoyed, and out of place. The culture shock (sometimes paired with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) can also affect how we interview and engage with prospective new employers and teammates. This is not to give the impression that we’re bumbling, weak, or socially inept. After all, vets like myself are in our 20s and early 30s, millennials for better or worse. But, behind our Honorable Discharge lies years of service wherein we’ve proudly volunteered to sacrifice pieces of our youth for other kinds of rites of passage, and suffered bruises and wounds (both physical and mental) that are rarely taken into account when companies simply assert “We support veterans.”

During interview processes when companies have claimed such a stance, I encourage vets to ask, “How so? What does this look like? Is there ongoing support for veterans given the changes in the demographics of the military (e.g., younger veterans, LGBTQ vets, spouses of veterans)? How do you educate your civilian employees about veterans in the workplace?”

Then, for companies with veteran initiatives and career fairs, we are typically pigeonholed in roles to meet a quota (while they get the good press of supporting the military). They often fail to open creative channels to us in favor of Type-A jobs in sales, order-driven gigs in middle management, or handy positions in operations. While these opportunities do appeal to some threads of our military service, we are creatives, too. My wingman in basic training was a DJ hired to work as a linguist for the Air Force. I studied contemporary dance and poetry prior to joining. We’ve had our hands on some of the most amazing technology, digital tools, and artificial intelligence simulators that inspire your latest smartphone app or game console. Yet, I’ve witnessed many companies hosting career fairs with large table displays and signage to entice vets only to shuffle us to non-creative areas of the company.

At Salt, as members of Diversity Works and various industry bodies (ASA, APSCO, RCSA), we ensure ongoing development and best practice across the world. Diversity is imperative to the majority of our client’s internal strategy.

To companies, Diversity & Inclusion teams, and HR professionals looking to recruit former military personnel, do your homework. Just as you are learning about the ever-evolving shades of humanity via race, gender, sexuality, and class, challenge yourself to learn about how veterans are impacted in your workplace. Partner with Salt. We have a proven track record of helping teams successfully hire new, qualified talent that supports your D&I efforts. Michael Speaking at O4U ConferenceWe host and participate in events like Out4Undergrad (O4U), an LGBTQ-focused conference that supports a more inclusive workforce in marketing. (Catch our upcoming Women in SaaS Sales event in December.) And we’re in the community volunteering with and learning from community organizations such as the Ali Forney Center. The face of what it is to be a veteran in America is usually attributed to men and women who bravely fought for us before the turn of the century. Nowadays, while we leave a seat at the table for them to voice their concerns, a new wave of us are trying to navigate adulthood and signal our worth as eager contributors to the workforce. Please listen.

To my fellow veterans on the job hunt, our military branches, civic organizations, and many universities provide programs to assist vets with the transition to civilian life. Use these resources. Another solution? Work with a recruiter experienced (and invested!) in pitching vets to deserving brands interested in recruiting government-certified, passionate talent. In uniform, we learn to lean on our team because our individual strengths help the whole. Link with fellow vets. Share your hacks for navigating a career outside of uniform. Let’s be the change we fought for in uniform—a stronger, better-equipped, more informed, and compassionate America.  

Happy Veterans Day!