How to Avoid Being a Terrible Job Seeker

Posted by Bob Wheeler

Bad Job SeekerNot long ago I wrote an article aimed at recruiters titled “Why Veterans Make Terrible Job Seekers (And What Recruiters Can Do About It”). The piece was inspired by discussions I had been a part of through the Veteran Mentor Network group on LinkedIn. Despite it being written with an eye towards recruiters, I shared it there as well. The group post received over 100 likes and generated over 50 comments, the vast majority of which were veteran job seekers stating how much they saw themselves in the article. This then is the natural follow up, written not for recruiters but for the veteran job seekers themselves.

If the recommendations below had to be distilled into a single thought it would be, “build and maintain your network.” Instead of just leaving you with a cliché, let’s look at some actionable steps veterans can take to become better at the task of job seeking.

CSTTF 2016Become Professionally Aware Now

Breaking out of the military bubble requires effort on the part of the service member but most veterans wait until the end of their career to do this. The sooner you learn about the private sector, the more time you’ll have to really understand industry similarities and differences. Even while on active duty, there are a number of ways to expand your professional knowledge.

Get educated, and do it for the right reason. Many veterans feel pressure to get a college degree whether it is a bachelor’s or an advanced degree, thinking it will make them attractive to potential employers. In reality in many cases the degree isn’t what employers are looking for, it’s the skills that degree represents.

When a service member says that they are working towards a degree in a certain field so that they can “get into” that field after the service, they often overestimate their post military prospects for employment. They think that their BS in Information Security along with their extensive leadership experience as a senior NCO in the infantry would translate to a management position in the IT field. But the fact is, technical degrees without corresponding technical experience won’t lead to anything more than an entry level position. And adding a master’s degree on top of that won’t help either.

This is not to say that non-specific or liberal arts degrees are worthless. There are excellent opportunities in sales and many larger organizations have management training programs that require a BS degree mostly as a way to narrow down what would otherwise be a large number of candidates to a more manageable slate. In these positions the degree really represents the ability to think and communicate at a professional level. The critical part of landing these jobs is still going to be the interview.

So the key here is to understand what the specific degree represents to those in the private sector so that you can leverage it appropriately. In the end it’s almost always a tool to make it easier on the organization to manage the selection process. No one gets hired because of their degree.

Get certified and do so early. All too often veterans pursue industry certifications either just as they are preparing to leave or right after they get out. Again, the thought process is that the cert will make them more attractive to employers. Well here’s the real secret – the earlier you get certified the more effective it is in your transition. Industry certifications, whether it’s in project management, information security, or human resources typically make you better at your job while in the service.

Working towards degrees and certifications also alert you to the aspects of the profession you may be less than familiar with, and it’s far better to find that info out years ahead of time instead of at the last minute.

Join or follow professional organizations. This is another terrific (and even easier) way to expand your professional knowledge. If you’re not sure if the organization actually fits your career plans you can follow them on social media outlets like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter first. Once you know that the organization aligns with your future goals don’t be afraid to spend the money to join.

Many offer discounted rates for those currently enrolled in college programs leading to related degrees, but even at full price it’s often worth the money as becoming a member of the national organization. Not only are you now invested in your profession, but you’ll also receive routine correspondence such as their magazine or newsletters.

National registration is also typically required to join a local chapter which you should most definitely do since it’s these local chapters that lead to real life connections, which is the gold standard of any network.

The list of professional organizations below is a great example but not all inclusive. Doing an internet search for the name of your industry followed by the phrase “professional organization” is a great way to find more.

Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association (AFCEA)

Project Management Institute (PMI),

National Society of Professional Engineers

Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM)

Industry conferences are one of the very best ways to really expand your knowledge about how the private sector of your industry operates as well as exposing you to cutting edge topics. In addition they let you actually connect with others in your field on a peer-to-peer level.

Remember that people go to these events for professional development and to expand their network, not to “look for a job.” These are places to plant seeds and tend the garden, not harvest crops, which is why it’s best to attend these events as soon as possible in your military career. But even if you’re already out of the service you have to start somewhere, so they may still be worth the time and money.

Speaking of cost, some of the national conferences can come with a bit of sticker shock. For example the registration for the GEOINT Conference this May can run as high as $1,899. But for government employees it’s $299. If you’re a member of their professional organization it’s even less at $249.

Others, such as the Cyber Security Conferences in Colorado Springs, San Antonio and Baltimore are sponsored by the Federal Business Council (FBC) each year and are completely free for government employees. Yet another reason to attend prior to your separation.

Local conferences are often times cheaper and don’t involve as much travel. Better yet they are an opportunity to establish relationships that can really flourish. For example, it was a connection I met at a RecruitDC event two years prior to my retirement from the Navy that led me to my current position.

If the factors such as cost, date or location mean that you simply can’t make it to a conference, this doesn’t mean that the conference isn’t of value. Look on their website you can see the agenda for current as well as previous events. This gives you an idea about the trending topics in the industry. Often times some of the presentations even get uploaded once the conference is over. Nothing like some free professional development right from your computer.

Conference websites will also feature a list of the exhibitors (companies in the industry who will be there to sell their products or services). While not all exhibitors will be hiring at the present time this is a terrific way to identify companies in your industry to research and follow. Some conferences, such as the cyber conferences mentioned above, will go a step further and also host industry specific job fairs where you can find companies currently looking for candidates with specific skills.

Lastly, large events will also have a social media presence on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. So you by “liking” the Cyber Maryland page on Facebook or following the Twitter hashtag #geoint15 last year for example, you can passively keep up with the event, as well as receive info the following year when the next conference rolls around.

JacobsUnderstand the Hiring Process

The second thing veteran job seekers need to do is understand the private sector hiring process. The vast majority of transitioning service members have never held any career related position other than their time in the military. A job, by the way, that they were hired for based primarily on their ability to learn a skill, their physical fitness, and their willingness to follow orders.

Think back to your military career. Did you ever have a peer that was just not very good at their job? No matter how bad they were at the technical aspects of their job, so long as they showed up on time and in the right uniform, they remained on active duty for at least the rest of their enlistment.

Well, private sector organizations can’t afford to carry dead weight, and turnover is extremely costly. It shouldn’t be a surprise that they can be so risk averse. To them, it’s often safer to have an open position than to hire the wrong person. Bad hires cost money and without a profit the company ceases to exist. So the hiring process is in essence a risk management decision. Accept that as a fact and take efforts to make yourself a less risky candidate.

Another part of the hiring process that many veterans don’t understand is the roles of the various individuals involved and the particular challenges of their job. Not really understanding the players often leads veterans to taking actions that, while they seem like a good idea, may actually be of no real value or worse yet, may be counterproductive. Here’s a basic breakdown of the principal players:

Sourcer – Someone whose primary job is to look for qualified candidates to eventually hand them off to a recruiter. The sourcer may use a number of tools including resume databases such as ClearedJobs.Net or other niche sites. They may also use social media platforms such as LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter, as well as job fairs. Sourcers may or may not make initial contact with the candidate, if they do it will typically be only to ascertain basic information and ensure the candidate fits the technical qualifications.

Recruiter – This person is responsible for understanding all the nuances of the position, including both technical requirements as well as the soft skill requirements in order to assemble a manageable slate of candidates for final consideration.

In the most basic sense there are two types of recruiters. Some are corporate recruiters, meaning they work specifically for one company and are loyal to that organization. Others are agency recruiters, sometimes called third-party recruiters meaning that they make their money by “pitching you” to an organization that needs your skills. They generally get paid by the organization an amount based on the first years’ salary. If they don’t make a placement, they don’t get paid, so they may not have as much of a loyalty to finding you the best fit as they do to finding you “any fit.”

What most job seekers also don’t know is that sourcers and recruiters have very little job security. Should an organization have a reduced need to hire they are quick to let recruiters go. With this kind of pressure it behooves the recruiter to ensure they consistently bring a full slate of qualified candidates for consideration.

It should be no surprise that recruiters may be a bit gun shy about taking a chance on someone at the expense of others that match up in a more traditional sense. This is not to say recruiters never stick their neck out for a candidate. There are a whole lot who do, especially those that have been around a while and have a strong relationship with their organization. But, especially for recruiters new to their organization, a slate of ten candidates can’t have too many special cases.

Hiring manager – This is not a job title in any organization. Simply put, this is an operational person in charge of a unit or team who has been given the authority to either fill a vacancy or add another person to their team through the hiring process. As rule, hiring managers are overwhelmed. In addition to their regular responsibilities they now are required to meet with the recruiter to explain the role, review possible slates of candidates, schedule times to meet for interviews, meet with a selection committee etc. All while making sure his or her unit continues to make their mission despite being shorthanded.

In large organizations these three roles are filled by separate individuals, which mean you may have multiple sourcers feeding multiple recruiters who are reporting to multiple hiring managers. Smaller companies, however, may combine the job of sourcing into the job of recruiting. This is considered “full cycle recruiting.”

No matter how the tasks are divided up, all three aspects of the process are part of the process. The relationship between the hiring manager and the recruiter is generally considered to be the most critical. The more programs a recruiter supports the harder it is to develop and maintain that connection with every manager.

cute houseFind a Home Base

Admittedly there are a ton of individual factors that go into deciding where to settle down following your time in the service, but the sooner you narrow down the options the better off you’ll be. A strong network is the most critical factor in landing a job and a strong network means actually getting to know people, and letting them get to know you, too.

It’s also important to note that telling potential employers that you’re “willing to work anywhere” is actually not a selling point. In most cases it makes you appear desperate. Geographic bias is real and you’ll lose out every time to someone who either already lives there or at least has expressed a desire to work in that particular location.

This is why it’s so important to manage your military career with an eye towards the rest of your life. Taking the orders to Guam or Italy might help set you up for the next rank or be an exciting adventure for you and your family, but they are lousy places to separate from. So by taking that assignment you should just assume that you’re going to stay in the service for another tour after that one is complete. If you don’t have enough time left to do so, it may be better to pass on those orders if you get the chance.

The ultimate goal is to retire/separate from the service in the same area that you plan on living and working. This can give you two or three years of developing the network you’ll need for a smooth transition, provided you make the effort. Unfortunately too many service members don’t make the effort because they are afraid of looking like they are “dropping their pack.”

Indecision is the real enemy here. If you’re in the right place both professionally and geographically then you need to admit that to yourself. Don’t be afraid of letting others know as well. Yes, it may not be the best thing for promotion purposes, but just because you take a day of leave to attend an industry conference or sit for a certification exam doesn’t mean that you’re neglecting the mission.

It’s far better to get out with a good plan and solid network as Chief Petty Officer or Lt Colonel than to be retiring from Guam as Senior Chief or a Colonel while looking for a job in Virginia.

If, after reading this, you feel like you’re really behind the power curve, don’t panic. Take a deep breath and start to think strategically about the things you can do. The tips above may take time, but they do work.

Being less than prepared may mean taking a position at a level less than what you anticipated, but you can always use that as a platform to launch off from. You may also want to look into some of the great mentorship programs through organizations like American Corporate Partners or Veterati.

And if you thought to yourself, “I wish I would have known that sooner.” Then please share this with others still on active duty. Helping those behind you can be good for your network as well.

Bob WheelerBob Wheeler is a ClearedJobs.Net Account Manager, a Navy veteran, a former recruiter and a certified veteran transition coach. You may reach Bob at [email protected].



This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 17, 2016 4:52 pm

One thought on “How to Avoid Being a Terrible Job Seeker”

  1. I wish I knew all of this BEFORE I completed my MS Degree. I honestly felt like my military background coupled with my MS degree would make me an extremely competitive candidate but I find myself in the ranks of the underemployed and frustrated.

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