Veterans of the last decade of wars are unemployed at a rate consistently high enough that those of us in the career development sphere should be concerned. The most recent data from the Department of Labor puts the current level at 9.2% unemployment for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Given the continued economic recession, unemployment across all sectors of the population is not unexpected, but the rate for veterans has maintained a higher level than for their civilian counterparts for as long as the United States has been involved in the current wars. This article explores research on student veterans’ career transitions and identifies higher education best practices to support student veterans.
Research on Veterans
I have worked with veterans in higher education for eight years starting as a career advisor, continuing as a veteran center director, and now as a consultant and coach. I have learned that, while veterans overall share some common characteristics, they are as diverse as any traditional student population in higher education, each with unique capabilities and challenges. Not all veterans have PTSD. Most veterans are willing to talk about their military experience once they establish trust with the listener. Few veterans will ask for help.
My research on veterans in higher education began with one question: Why are so many veterans unemployed? A number of other questions followed. Who wouldn’t want to hire bright, capable individuals with leadership experience and the ability to make thoughtful decisions? Why are so many veterans graduating from higher education without jobs? What is it like to be a veteran preparing for graduation from higher education and thinking about a civilian career? From these questions grew the purpose for my research: to explore the lived experiences of career development of infantry veterans as they transition to civilian employment in higher education.
Recent research on the current population of veterans in higher education has been limited with a few authors asking questions that lack rigor and utilizing theoretical underpinnings better suited to other populations. There is no research on the career development experiences of the current population of veterans. Utilizing literature on veterans in higher education, adult career transition theory, and boundaryless career theory, I was able to understand and support key findings from the study as well as draw conclusions and make recommendations for further research and practice.
Veterans in higher education undergo shifts to their personal and professional power that force them to question who they are and how they relate to the environment around them. As they experience these shifts, from high power as experts in the military to low power as novices in higher education, veterans must adjust the ways in which they relate to others and learn new strategies to engage the career development and civilian employment search processes. In place of their confidence and ability to take charge is discomfort and reluctance with their new roles. These feelings are foreign to them after volunteering to serve their country no matter what the challenge or danger. New environments and information veterans encounter on campus and in the civilian employment search include the career motivations, job search strategies, and relationships with which they must engage if they are to be successful.
The concepts uncovered in this research demonstrate challenges veterans undertake to fulfill their goals of using higher education as career development to reach civilian employment. Veterans in this research indicated that staying in the military would have been much easier than moving on to a new civilian life and career, and at times they long to return to that comfortable life. Their success going forward to civilian employment is not based on accomplishing an end state with the transitions they undergo. Rather, they expect the nature of their adjustments as they move forward to continue as they undertake new experiences. Veterans must find a way to incorporate the hope and fear they feel into their lives and find a way to manage these emotions as part of career development to pursue new civilian careers.
Recommendations for Practice
Participants in this research made recommendations for practice in higher education that aligned with my recommendations based on the data and conclusions drawn.
Early Career Services Outreach - Because veterans do not seek assistance unless necessary, school representatives should contact them preemptively so they are aware of resources available and how to access them.
Career Services Staff Training - Implement career development staff training on how to assist veterans with résumé development and interview preparation because staff are likely unfamiliar with the nuances of military work.
Military Cultural Competency Training - Implement military cultural competency training campus-wide, particularly for those responsible for teaching and advising activities to learn how to effectively educate and make thoughtful referrals of veterans to supportive resources.
What I found in the research is that their experiences are as diverse as veterans themselves, and we have vastly underestimated their knowledge of and thoughtfulness about their experiences. It is my hope that, with this new understanding of veterans’ career development, institutions of higher education will be better able to employ effective strategies to meet veterans’ needs. Much as the WWII veterans brought ready skill and capability to higher education, the current generation of veterans has demonstrated their adaptability and leadership in service as well as drive to make a new contribution by undertaking higher education. The lessons to be learned from this research have the potential to change the way in which veterans are perceived by career development staff and prepare for their new missions in civilian employment.
Sarah E. Minnis, Ph.D., has over 20 years of career and organization development experience with 8 years working specifically with veterans and the organizations educating and employing them. Her passion is helping veterans find financial sustainability and enjoyment in work through providing career development expertise and teaching organizations about military and veteran culture. Through her experiences, and her own research, Sarah has shown that veterans are an outstanding workforce asset but need help redefining their employment paths. She has also found that organizations sometimes need to better understand veterans so that they can be most successful. Sarah has developed a program of support and education to help campus and business communities understand the value of and embrace the veterans they serve.
Sarah is the CEO and Principal Consultant at Anthology Consulting LLC where she provides career development, training, and organizational support for hiring veterans. Sarah holds a PhD in Human Resource Development from Texas A&M University, a master’s degree in Education and Student Affairs from Western Kentucky University, and a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Central Washington University. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.