Why HR Can Be a Good Fit for Veterans

Andrew Deichler By Andrew Deichler June 23, 2021
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Why HR Can Be a Good Fit for Veterans

​On the surface, the human resources profession might not look like a natural fit for military veterans seeking to make the move to civilian life. But depending on the path veterans took while in the military, HR might be a logical next step in their careers.

Skills That Carry Over

Although no two military careers are exactly alike, soldiers often take on responsibilities that could translate well to HR, should that be where their interests lie. From the beginning of their service, many active military members are put in charge of large numbers of people, explained Mary M. Rydesky, a professor of business management at Wayland Baptist University in Anchorage, Alaska. Moreover, they're taught many of the underlying tenets of HR, such as trusting, listening, record-keeping and disciplining. "So many of them have extensive HR training before they get out of the military, and they don't even recognize it as part of their skill set," she said.

Andrew R. Morton, director of veterans and certification affairs for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, emphasized that the competencies of HR are "absolutely ingrained" in the majority of the tenets of military leadership. "A senior NCO [non-commissioned officer] in the Marine Corps who is responsible for the care of, training of, career development of and risk assessment for a fellow group of Marines is practicing the tenets of HR every day," he said. "That's why we are seeing so many of the services investing in competency-based credentials, including the SHRM certification." 

The Air Force has built these credentials into its First Sergeant and senior NCO training programs, Morton added. Likewise, the Marine Corps is inculcating them within the development of its officers and others in its HR career field. And the Army has worked with SHRM to develop its recruiting and retention officer career field. Providing active-service members with these opportunities gives them even more options, whether they choose to leave the military or not. "We've seen each of the services move the focus of credentialing and certification much earlier within the individual's career progression because there's a recognition that competency-based, relevant credentials are much more than a transition resource," Morton said. "These certifications make these individuals more effective and proficient in their everyday military mission." 

Mike Colarusso, an organizational research analyst in the Army's Office of Economic and Manpower Analysis at West Point, N.Y., added that military service can help veterans develop a variety of supporting HR skills, such as effective communication, conflict resolution and relationship management. That said, he doesn't believe that military service automatically provides a sound foundation for an HR career, as some military specialties might prepare a soldier for an HR career better than others.

Colarusso pointed out that the Army's dedicated HR workforce, the Adjutant General Corps, is probably the best training ground for its veterans wanting to make the transition to civilian HR. "But even that experience might not be enough to guarantee success," said Colarusso, describing the Army's HR function as more transaction-, process- and compliance-oriented than that of many civilian HR departments. "Those soldiers successfully making the transition to civilian HR typically augment their Army experience with additional HR-related education, certifications and self-study. I think this type of upskilling better postures them for HR success."

Making the Shift

Moving from the military into HR—or any civilian career—isn't going to be seamless. The transition process can be difficult, particularly because the job search and interview process are relatively new territory for many veterans.

The U.S. Army operates a Transition Assistance Program to help service members gain skills and knowledge they'll need to eventually find civilian jobs. Additionally, a growing trend within the Army has been to conduct internal job markets for junior and midcareer officers, Colarusso noted. "These markets require candidates to express interest in jobs across the Army and then interview with prospective 'employers' (Army units)," he said. "In some instances, we even employ tools like HireVue, and I think these experiences are increasingly like [what] those soldiers will face when entering the civilian job market." 

Chris Thorne, SHRM-CP, HR consultant and SHRM recertification provider with Chris Thorne Consulting and retired U.S. Navy command master chief, explained that one of the biggest obstacles veterans face is understanding the definitions and terminology of career fields in the civilian sector versus what they learned in the military. Conversely, recruiters and HR departments might not be up to speed on military terminology, and they might look at a veteran's resume and not be able to see how the individual's skills would translate to their organization.

Thorne advises veterans to approach the civilian job search the way they would have approached a deployment in a new country. Before leaving on the assignment, soldiers go through special learning sessions to familiarize themselves with the culture of the area they're entering. They'll learn the language, key terms, customs and courtesies. If they went in completely ignorant, they would fail in their mission. "That same military skill set of learning how to adapt to the environment you're going into for deployment is the same skill set we use for the military transition—you're coming into a different culture and environment," he said.

The transition specifically to HR may be difficult as well; as noted earlier, a service member's career path up to that point may or may not adequately prepare them to step into that environment. Thorne noted that most veterans who are attempting to make the jump to civilian HR are senior officers and view HR as synonymous with leadership. While there are certainly aspects of leadership to HR, part of assisting these individuals in their transition is helping them understand that HR isn't primarily about becoming the top leader of a company.

That said, what does carry over well is working in a compliance-based environment. "In the military, we use rules, regulations, DOD [Department of Defense] instructions and various laws that are all compliance-based that go into all the same realms that we talk about in civilian HR management," Thorne said. "So, whether you're talking about labor relations or training and development, these are compliance-driven processes. When I talk with a veteran, I say, 'If you can thrive in a compliance-driven, human capital management environment in the military—which is what military leadership is—then you can thrive in human resources." 

Why HR Is Appealing

While there is clearly some debate over how well the military prepares service members for HR, Colarusso has observed substantial interest from veterans in pursuing a career in the field. It just may not be their first stop on their civilian career path. While he noted that many veterans (particularly those from combat arms) seek operations jobs after they leave active duty, HR may appeal to them once they've settled into their post-military lives and have had some time to see how much of an impact the HR function can have across an organization.

"Once they've made that transition, I think some are excited to see the evolution of HR into a value-producing and strategically vital business function," he said. "HR is clearly a growth field, one that increasingly affords its practitioners an opportunity to make a difference to organizational success. I think this is generally appealing to veterans, particularly officer veterans—they want to make a strategic difference."

[Want to learn more about a career in HR? Join us at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2021, taking place Sept. 9-12 in Las Vegas and virtually.]


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