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Army Veteran Talks Transition to Civilian Life, Offers 'Challenge' to HR

A man in a suit and tie smiling in front of a wall.
​Brian Wheat

​For many veterans, finding a job after leaving the military is an important part of the transition to civilian life. But they often struggle to adapt to a new world of work.

The military provides a sense of purpose, camaraderie, honor and mission—characteristics that can be difficult to find or define in the civilian world. When transitioning out of the military, many veterans experience a loss of identity and have difficulty finding a career with comparable attributes.

Brian Wheat, a project manager at payroll services company Paychex in Rochester, N.Y., spent 20 years in the U.S. Army and says there are ways veterans can better prepare themselves for life after the military and find a meaningful career. And, he adds, HR can play a major role in supporting this transition.

Ahead of Veterans Day, Wheat spoke with SHRM Online about the myriad ways the military prepares veterans for civilian work, what he found difficult during his transition and the need for HR professionals to exercise transparency when hiring veterans.

SHRM Online: Can you talk about your time in the Army? What was life like?

Wheat: I joined the service on May 1, 2002, as a military police officer in the Army. I was motivated to get involved because, after graduating from college, the attacks on 9/11 weighed heavy on my mind. I stayed in the service because it was very fulfilling. It helped me grow as an individual and provided an outlet to give back to those less fortunate.

My time in the Army, especially in my early years, was illuminating. You learn so much about who you are: your strengths and weaknesses, how to work with others and—as clichéd as it sounds—what really matters. I worked my way through the ranks over the next 20 years, achieving field grade officer status.

While pursuing my [doctoral degree] in 2016, I realized that my time in the military was coming to a natural close, and I had hoped to put what I had learned—in both my educational exploits and time in the military—to use in civilian service. Similarly, the continuous time away from family, the need to move every few years for new assignments and the changing culture within the organization led me to step back and assess whether continuing on the path was the right fit for me.

I discharged in 2022 as a chief of contingency operations for the Army's prestigious 101st Airborne Division.

SHRM Online: What was it like transitioning from the military to civilian life? Can you speak to any successes and setbacks you faced?

Wheat: I think the biggest surprise during that transition was how different the application and career process was from the Army's. In the military, there's a clear path from A to B to C, careerwise. It can be flexible based on your interests and skills, but the general steps are the same.

I severely underestimated the time it would take to apply for jobs and put together a resume that captured the totality of my experiences. Once I landed an interview, it was almost like a full-time job to review the companies, ensure I could handle the responsibilities and prepare for rounds upon rounds of interviews. Then, once I got an offer, I was also unsure how to approach the salary and benefit negotiations phase.

I attribute my success during this time to the transition planning I undertook in preparation. Without that, my transition from military officer to civilian career would have failed. I utilized a transition calendar to document priority due dates for documents and appointments, as well as to plan for resume writing, interview training and applications.

SHRM Online: In your opinion, what are some transferable skills that support a successful transition from military service to a civilian career?

Wheat: The skills that help you succeed in the military are actually not that different from those that most civilian recruiters are looking for. My time in the service honed critical skills like project management, communication and collaboration, adaptability, and emergency management. It also cultivated my leadership skills and helped me feel comfortable stepping into those roles in corporate settings.

The key for me was figuring out how to position all that correctly during the application and interview processes. The way I figured it out was by evaluating the situations in which I excelled and then trying to work backward to the core ability that allowed me to succeed. Using that core ability rather than the specific situation helped me communicate to the manager or recruiter why my experience was applicable to the role for which I was applying.

SHRM Online: How can veterans set themselves up for success in finding a fulfilling civilian career?

Wheat: I'd tell them what I wish I knew when I moved into the civilian workforce.

The first piece of advice is to do your research. Everyone has an opinion on what you should have in your resume or what is desirable in a candidate. At the end of the day, do your research on each company to which you're applying and tailor your materials to their values and role.

Veterans should also think about what you are truly looking for in this new role. For example, what type of people and company do you want to work with and for? It's often better to pass up something that doesn't align with your needs than to accept it and leave sooner rather than later.

There's no shame in getting your foot in the door. Rank and status are everything in military life, but it doesn't have to be that way in civilian life. If you like the company and culture, it's OK to take an entry-level role that makes you happy. That said, don't sell yourself short or settle for less than you're worth. Your expertise and skills are worth a great deal, and there are tons of organizations that understand that.

Finally, it's time to talk about yourself. In the service, it becomes second nature to recognize the efforts of those around you and give credit where credit is due. As a civilian—and particularly during the interview process—this is your time to take credit for all those accomplishments and tell everyone how great you are. It's your time to shine.

[SHRM Online: Employing Military Veterans]

SHRM Online: What advice do you have for employers seeking to recruit veterans to their organization?

Wheat: My main advice would be to give [veterans] a chance. Veterans often face disadvantages when job searching because they often lack experience in dealing with "corporate" professionalism—they don't know how to draft a resume for private industry, they don't know that "job hopping" is frowned upon, and so on.

Don't underestimate the veteran candidate. Being in the military makes you extremely adaptable and agile; it's the nature of who we are and what we do. It also teaches incredible loyalty, problem-solving skills, communication skills and various specialty fields from which civilian businesses could benefit.

I'd also challenge employers to shed their biases around what it means to be a veteran. It's no secret that soldiers get stereotyped as having more serious mental health or substance abuse issues than civilians, and that can make employers hesitant to hire them, despite ADA [Americans with Disability Act] requirements. I would urge recruiters and managers to make a conscious effort to set those misconceptions aside and assess veterans on their skills and experience as they would any other candidate.

It's also really important that employers are transparent during the salary and benefits negotiation phase. The only information accessible to soldiers during our transition is what is posted online, and that's not always an accurate reflection of reality.

Although salary and benefits may not be as important to retired service members as culture fit, junior officers or soldiers may not have spent enough time in service to guarantee their retirement, especially if their income and benefits are the only source for their family.


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