Bringing the troops home

Programs help former soldiers find jobs as civilians
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/26/2012

Back in 1993, Mark Walden was an infantry officer in the Canadian Forces. Staged out of Croatia, his regiment was having trouble getting into Bosnia but when an opportunity came through via the Macedonian border, the troops were deployed within 48 hours.

That kind of flexibility and adaptability in the military can translate into strong skills in a civilian career. But it can be difficult to transition from military life to civilian life — the two are very different worlds.

Typically, someone in the military is not thinking about work after the military, according to Walden, who served with Canadian and British regiments until 1998 and then ended up working for Procter & Gamble before joining RBC in 2005.

“A lot of people really didn’t understand what military service or military training had given me in terms of skills and experience. I just found it more difficult to make the transition,” said Walden, who is in commercial financial services, origination, in Toronto. “The individuals who do 10 years and then leave are probably the most disadvantaged from the standpoint that they missed their 20s, where their peers have gone off and are establishing careers, and they need someone to take a risk on them.”

Very commonly, people in the military who are married and may have young kids are not keen to be posted anywhere else, so they are looking to get out, said Karae White, owner of Morgan Ebbett Career Services in Courtenay, B.C.

“You can retire from the military after you’ve done 20 years, so you could easily be 40, and really you’ve got potentially two more, three more careers.”

But military qualifications don’t match those in the civilian world, said White, who has coached people from the nearby military base. She cites the example of her husband, who drove a truck in the military but needed a different driver’s license among civilians.

Some go-getters are able to pursue civilian qualifications while in the military and others ttend training sessions offered by the military to help with the transition, she said, but these are not perfect and can involve sitting in a large lecture facility for two full days.

“It’s good information but it’s delivered in one big chunk.”

While those in officer ranks may have less difficulty, as they often have a university education and have had leadership roles, non-commissioning members may have more problems, said Tim Black, an associate professor of counselling psychology at the University of Victoria who is involved in a veterans’ transition program.

“If you go from a particular rank and role in the military, you may not find that position in the civilian world, let alone one that pays you the same — it just may not exist. Like a tank mechanic,” he said. “A lot of it has to do with not really being able to translate military experience into civilian speak, as it were. There’s a lot of skills and things that go into being a military person in terms of organization and the ability to follow through on tasks and it’s all done in a lot of very militarized language with a lot of acronyms.”

There are also barriers around mental health, as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can affect people trying to make the transition. Those affected tend to want to isolate themselves, so they won’t put themselves out there to go for a job interview or network, and they want to keep distractions to a minimum, said Black.

New program helps with hurdles

Because of the many hurdles, RBC and the Treble Victor Group, an ex-military networking group, with the support of the charity Canada Company and the True Patriot Love Foundation, have launched a recruitment program meant to support ex-military making the shift to civilian life. And with military action in the Middle East winding down, it’s a timely endeavour.

“We really saw an opportunity to assist other people like ourselves who were leaving the military, just to get that first critical introduction or those critical doors opened at specific corporations, and to assist in a bit of a mentoring capacity,” said Walden, who is one of more than 60 self-identified ex-military personnel working at RBC and also president of the Treble Victor Group. “These individuals have gone off and made sacrifices and we owe it to them as Canadians to give them meaningful secondary and tertiary careers.”

RBC has leaned very heavily on the network in its recruitment, said Lee Gray, a senior manager of recruitment at RBC in Toronto. That has meant looking at a resumé to understand what a job candidate has done in the military, what success looks like in that capacity, what transferable skills she might have and potential fit. RBC is also putting together an onboarding program where new employees are partnered with a buddy who has an ex-military background.

“Their partnership and tutelage has been very important to us. To be honest, it really was Greek to us and we’re at a place where we’re much more comfortable looking at those CVs and assessing potential fit,” he said. “We really want to make sure people are placed appropriately because no one wins when someone is under-hired significantly.”

And the ex-military have plenty to offer civilian employers, such as transferable skills like problem-solving, collaboration and teamwork, he said.

“Those are three that… are absolutely essential in what we look for when we look for the soft skills because in hiring, there’s the technical skills but the things that are the most difficult to assess and probably have more impact on (success) are soft skills, the behavioural things.”

A lot of military people say education is not their strength but the military constantly trains them, said White.

“They get training in everything from leadership to… sexual harassment, equality, WMS (workplace materials safety),” she said. “They’ve proven that they’re continuous learners, which is one thing employers look for.”

They’re also very well-trained when it comes to technical or trade skills, said White.

“They’re leaps and bounds ahead of most of the other people that I’ve worked with that are walking city streets but they don’t think they are because everybody they hang out with is like that. So there’s (the matter) of convincing them about how they’ll fit in in the civilian world.”

And the one thing the military does more than any other organization is actually train its leaders, she said. “They train them to be leaders, teachers, to be instructors, to figure how to work with everyone.”

Officers are often responsible for co-ordinating a lot of data, said Black, “whether it’s troops being deployed here with supplies and services coming in, medical things needed to be set up, and having to co-ordinate those things — it takes a lot of logistics background to do that and some of them are very skilled at that.”

Another common skill is diplomacy, he said.

“A lot of them are doing diplomatic work if they’re on the streets of Afghanistan, having to deal with the locals and translators, having to deal in very touchy situations with very high consequences.”

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