Military to Civilian Jobs: The Role of HR

July 7, 2022

A former service member's closet shows a mix of his military uniforms and civilian clothing.

If you travel through any U.S. airport, you'll immediately see signs of how we value our military service personnel. Gestures like priority boarding for uniformed staff are just one of many small signs of appreciation that say "thank you" to our military for their service.

However, not every move our serving military personnel and veterans make is as easy and stress-free as boarding a commercial flight. For many veterans, making the transition from a military career to a civilian role can be more than challenging. Employer bias, unconscious or otherwise, may mean that while many businesses vocally support our military personnel, they are not always prepared to employ them.

It's the role of HR practitioners to smooth this transition and help veterans build successful careers after leaving the military.

As an assistant professor of human resource and workforce development in the University of Arkansas ONLINE HR program, Yuanlu Niu has dedicated much of her academic research to addressing the challenges of veteran career development and employability.

As such, she's the perfect person to speak with about delivering the strategies that human resource development practitioners need to support veterans making the transition from military to civilian jobs.

Niu is also working hard to ensure that military veterans can find employment in senior HR positions, helping to change how organizations can learn to value the skills and experience acquired in military service.


Transitioning From Military to Civilian Life

According to Niu, the role of HR in managing the transition from military life to a civilian role shouldn't be so problematic. In fact, there are many military jobs that transfer to civilian life; it is often just a case of translating military experience into a language that civilian employers can understand.

"It can be a challenge just to develop a resume so that potential civilian employers understand what skills and knowledge servicemembers have acquired in military service," says Niu. "In most instances, veterans need assistance with translating their skills, training and experiences from military jargon to a language that can be understood and valued by the civilian employer."

Photo of Yuanlu Niu
Yuanlu Niu

According to Niu, the process of veterans transitioning from the military to civilian roles isn't a one-way street.

"Human resource and development professionals also need to take the time to understand military cultures and the military context to know how to communicate with veterans and facilitate the mentoring of these employees," says Niu.

At a more complex level, military veterans and potential employers may also need support dealing with the physical and psychological impact of active service.

Research suggests that approximately 14% to 16% of U.S. servicemembers deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq have experienced PTSD or depression in recent years. Since September 11, 2001, roughly 2.8 million American military personnel have deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond.

As these military service personnel transition out of the military, they represent a valuable resource for the civilian job market. This opportunity is particularly true during a time when many industries are struggling with a skills shortage.

Within the role of HR, more nuanced awareness of what employers can do to ease the transition between military life and civilian roles, including supporting veterans' mental and physical health issues, is necessary. Moreover, it's the type of support that needs to be extended throughout the workforce, military or civilian.

"Employers may need to provide veterans with a mental health counseling service," says Niu. "Not every veteran will experience these problems, but issues relating to stress and burnout can happen anywhere and to anyone in an organization. Therefore, it should be one of the functions of human resource development to ensure workers can access this kind of service."


Career Development and Employability

Niu explains that because military life is very structured, many veterans struggle with the less formal environment of the civilian employment market. They may find the recruitment process, job search and negotiation stages entirely alien to how their career progression was managed in the military.

Mentoring can play a key role in building better understanding on both sides.

"My research into career development and employability suggests that job applicants with military experience have fewer opportunities than those from a civilian background," says Niu. "Many of the challenges veterans experience can be resolved by mentoring. This is a process the University of Arkansas takes very seriously, and we rank very highly compared to other universities when it comes to mentoring our students."

Niu explains how the challenges veterans face when transitioning from military life may mean that not all employers are sympathetic to their needs.

A former service member dresses for a civilian job interview.

"Some employers worry that veterans might not be a good fit for their organizations," says Niu. "This bias is one of the reasons why I focused on this topic in my academic research. I want to attract the attention of human resource development practitioners, employers and academics to look into this problem and make some positive change."

However, Niu insists that more enlightened employers see significant benefits in recruiting and hiring veterans.

"The companies that hire veterans really value the attributes veterans bring to the organizational culture of the workplace," says Niu. "For example, the ability to work in a structured way towards clear targets, essential in the military, is a skill that many civilian employers appreciate. The technical skills they bring to the STEM fields are also highly valued."

However, it's not just veterans' technical skills that need translating. They may also need to adjust some of their soft skills.

"Organizations are increasingly seeking to embrace a more diverse workforce," says Niu. "Service personnel leaving the military may need the training to help them develop their awareness of diversity issues."


Going Back to School

Going back to school and studying for a degree is a recommended path that translates skills and experience acquired in the military to qualifications that civilian employers can understand — and that they need. However, the return to education can come with its own challenges.

There are several roadblocks that veterans may experience before, during, and after going back to school.

Niu's research suggests that approximately 60% of unemployed veterans are 45 years or older. This highlights the importance of making training and education accessible to nontraditional and older students.

"First, there's the economic impact," says Niu. "As nontraditional students, many veterans are making the transition to the civilian workforce later in life. They may have families to support and bills to pay when going back to school. Then, when they graduate, they will also be re-entering the workforce at a later stage than most traditional students. Educating employers to look beyond the job seeker's age on a job application is just one part of the problem."

Niu believes that creating a flexible learning environment that fits around a veteran's life isn't a "nice to have" option — it's essential.


Flexible Online Learning

When veterans are deciding what school or degree program is right for them, it's essential to understand how they can balance their studies around their other commitments.

Taking an online degree program can offer the flexibility to manage education, work and personal life. This is particularly important for students still in military service who may be deployed with little or no advance warning.

"Online learning can be a very flexible option for people with a military career or who are otherwise working to support their family," says Niu. "The freedom not to attend classes on campus means students don't waste hours commuting back and forth to school when they could be working, studying or enjoying family time."

Niu also explains that special consideration is given to military students struggling to balance their academic work with the rest of their lives.

"We treat our military students on a case-by-case basis," says Niu. "If a student is on active duty or struggling with other work or family commitments and cannot finish an assignment on time, I give them the flexibility to complete it later. Sometimes, if they have completed over 50% of the work for a course but will not be able to complete the semester due to their duties, they can come back to complete the rest of the course when it is offered in a later semester. We always try to create options that work best for our students."

Online learning also creates opportunities for out-of-state students to join programs.

"Our online students are coming from everywhere," says Niu. "They are attracted to our online programs because of the advantage of online learning. But our military students also come to us because the University of Arkansas is a very veteran-friendly university."


What Is a Veteran-Friendly University?

Niu explains that military personnel can take advantage of benefits, including the GI Bill, to return to education and smooth the transition from military service to civilian life.

"Our online students are coming from everywhere. They are attracted to our online programs because of the advantage of online learning. But our military students also come to us because the University of Arkansas is a very veteran-friendly university. … Our veteran center is very online-friendly. Students are always encouraged to reach out to them via email or phone about anything they might need support with. … We might be online, but we are also a very friendly, human environment."

Yuanlu Niu, Assistant professor of human resource and workforce development

Veterans attending University of Arkansas ONLINE have full access to the Veteran and Military-Affiliated Student Center, where they can seek assistance with the admissions process, apply for military educational benefits and scholarships and gain referrals to various academic departments within the university.

The veteran center also maintains an extensive network within the community to refer students to organizations specializing in veteran services.

"Our veteran center is very online-friendly," says Niu. "Students are always encouraged to reach out to them via email or phone about anything they might need support with."

The support offered by the veteran center fits in perfectly with University of Arkansas ONLINE's reputation as an institution that values the importance of mentoring its students.

"We might be online, but we are also a very friendly, human environment," says Niu.


Community Learning

The veteran center is just one example of how the university encourages and develops a sense of community among students.

According to Niu, despite the remote nature of online learning, community is very much at the heart of University of Arkansas ONLINE's programs.

"My teaching philosophy revolves around student development and encourages community learning," says Niu. "I always strive to create an environment that involves my students. For example, we encourage them to get involved on the discussion boards, where I give timely feedback on conversations. I also have a policy of replying to every student email within 24 hours, so no matter what happens, they can always get hold of me."

Niu is also quick to highlight the importance of building community between military and non-military students.

"Our military students and non-military students are all interested in each other's experiences," says Niu. "This is particularly evident in our discussion board conversations. I always ask my students to provide their experiences as an example or reference to illustrate the details they share. The content shared by our military students is always very interesting and widely discussed by everyone."

Niu believes this engagement adds tangible value to all students in the program.

"Both groups enjoy learning about each other's experience and want to explore it more," says Niu. "This is important in the context of the workplace because, in the real world, both groups exist side by side and have to work together."


Is Human Resource Development a Good Career Option for Veterans?

Niu believes that, not only can the field of human resource development help veterans transition to civilian careers, but the field can be an attractive career choice for many of them.

"When I'm mentoring students, those with a military background often stand out," says Niu. "They might already have some HR experience in the military. However, regardless of previous experience or qualifications, our military students tend to be very focused on achieving objectives and working toward strict targets which are perfectly aligned to the needs of business and industry."

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that a human resource manager with a bachelor's degree can expect to earn a median wage of $121,220 per year. Data also shows that opportunities are increasing in the field, with employment predicted to grow by 9% over the next decade, adding some 14,800 new jobs.

"The HR industry is a fast-growing industry," says Niu. "I don't want to say it's an easy option, but if a military veteran enjoys working with people and has some experience in HR for the military, the transition can be smoother compared to other industries."

For those veteran students with leadership skills and who are focused on moving into senior positions, an online bachelor's degree in human resource and workforce development education can help human resource development professionals advance into senior roles. Senior job titles veterans might find themselves working in include chief learning officer, director of HR or executive vice president of HR.


Learn More About HRWD

Visit the Bachelor's Degree in Human Resource and Workforce Development Education program page at University of Arkansas ONLINE to learn more about developing HR skills and strategies for today's diverse workplaces.

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