What if you spent years in a job gaining valuable experience and honing useful skills, yet every interview or job lead is a dead end? That's the unfortunate reality for many of today's veterans in Orange County.
According to a report by the University of Southern California School of Social Work, more than 60 percent of Orange County veterans believe employers don't understand or value their skills, almost 30 percent of post-9/11 vets are unemployed, and three-quarters earn below the California median salary.
But those stats don't add up, says Josh Newman, founder and executive director of ArmedForce2Workforce, a Southern California nonprofit that provides young veterans career-planning and job-search assistance.
"When you consider the combination of value that vets bring, recent positive trends in the economy overall and the current level of goodwill toward those who served, the rates of veteran unemployment should be close to zero," says Newman, who served as an Army officer. "Veteran hires bring a history of prior achievement, a commitment to shared values and fit well in an organizational culture."
One big problem: Persistent misconceptions about veterans that hold many back. Here are five of the most common myths — and how vets can set the record straight.
Myth: Vets are unbalanced or have control problems
Fact: This is an unfortunate stereotype, says Chase Wickersham, Director of Goodwill of Orange County's Tierney Center for Veteran Services in Tustin, which helps vets with employment and navigate various service organizations and the VA. He's heard it firsthand in focus groups aimed at understanding how employers evaluate veteran candidates.
"Inevitably HR people asked, 'Do all veterans have control problems? Are all veterans potentially violent?'" he says.
The answer, of course, is no. "But the problem is veterans have the worst PR in the world; those are the only stories you see (on the news)," he says.
While a small percentage of veterans do have emotional problems, "the vast majority of veterans don't have any of those issues," says Wickersham, an Army vet who served in Vietnam.
One strategy for overcoming stereotypes: Don't fall into the trap of positioning yourself solely as a veteran, Newman says. Instead: "Relax and be the best version of yourself," he says. Show the interviewer you are well-rounded and would make a great addition to the team.
Myth: Vets lack key experience and skills compared to their peers
Fact: Employers misunderstand veterans' potential. Vets possess incredibly diverse skill sets and experiences that make them ideal employees, disciplined workers, quick learners and adaptable. In the military, vets learn to support a common mission and work well in a team with a range of personalities and backgrounds. Depending on the vet, they may have years of leadership experience. Many vets also routinely made decisions under pressure, solved problems on the fly and honed organizational skills. In addition, vets' character, work ethic and loyalty shouldn't be underestimated by employers, Newman says.
All of these things can make a veteran a stronger candidate than someone with more traditional experience.
The best advice for a vet: Explain your skills in laymen's terms, Wickersham says. Share how you'd use your expertise and experience to fulfill the job's duties or handle a potential challenge.
Myth: Vets are best suited for jobs similar to those they held in the military
Fact: Just because a veteran drove a truck in the Army doesn't mean that's all he or she is primed for. This is something both employers and veterans should understand. The military trains men and women to develop critical and, more important, transferable skills (see above).
Veterans should not be afraid to look for jobs outside of their comfort zone, or to new and expanding fields. Think about how the skills you developed in the military might apply. And, in interviews and when networking, rather than focusing on what you did in the armed forces, stress what you gained and be specific in how you'd use those skills to excel in a new position.
Myth: A military vet might be redeployed
Fact: "Once someone has been discharged from active service, there is no risk of them going back," says Wickersham. (An exception is if a vet is in the National Guard or the reserves, which he or she should disclose.
It's unfortunate veterans must educate employers on this point, but doing so is simple: "Openly communicate that there is no possibility of future deployment," Wickersham says. During an interview, for example, work it into the discussion. For example: "I gained so much in the military, but now that I've served and won't be called back, I'm looking forward to building a long career in (insert field)."
Myth: Vets are only good at taking orders
Fact: Yes, veterans follow instructions exceptionally well and follow through on tasks, but as military personnel, they also were forced to adapt quickly and utilize critical thinking.
"There's a difference between taking orders and being focused on accomplishing a mission," Wickersham says. "The military breeds independent action. If you were in the military, you understand the mission takes precedence over everything."
The military teaches leadership at all levels, too, so all veterans, including non-commissioned officers, receive that important experience. "It is a misconception that only officers lead in the military," Wickersham says.
When talking with employers, vets need to communicate this, and all of his or her skills, clearly. If you can't, it puts everyone at a disadvantage. "Employers are looking for the best candidate for the job," Wickersham says. "Veterans get hired because they are the best candidates, and often their critical leadership experience makes them the best candidate."
—Alicia Doyle for Goodwill of Orange County