During three tours of duty in Afghanistan, Captain David Mack commanded dozens of combat troops on missions in unpredictable situations, often amid the whiz of bullets and the scream of shells.
Throughout his 10-year military career, the Torontonian’s leadership skills and experience were never questioned by fellow soldiers in the British Army’s Royal Regiment of Scotland, in which he served as a platoon commander.
But when he made the transition back to life in Canada, employers couldn’t easily see how his military skills and experience would translate to a civilian workplace.
“Whenever I started describing to employers what I did in the military, people would just scratch their heads,” said Mr. Mack, who had been studying theology at Oxford University when he enlisted in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Even he had difficulty imagining what kind of career would be best for him. “To come out of a military role and work out what you want to do is one of the most confusing things anyone can ever face,” he said.
Such an identity crisis is common for ex-military staff, most of whom have known no other occupation before they try to carve out a new role in the civilian work force, experts say. Now, it’s a career crisis many Canadian military personnel may face if the Department of National Defence acts on a new report by Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie, former commander of the Canadian army in Afghanistan. His report recommends dismissing or reassigning 3,500 regular forces personnel, and cutting up to 4,500 from the ranks of full-time reservists.
Making the mental shift
“Now that Canada is ending its commitment in Afghanistan, it’s clearly a time when many military people will start looking around at their options,” said Colin Monk, managing director of recruiter Michael Page International in Toronto, which has placed several former officers in civilian jobs over the past year.
“The hard thing for these guys and gals getting out of uniform is the Canadian civilian population doesn’t really realize what the military experience offers in terms of skill sets,” Mr. Monk said.
And combat roles are so intense and focused on the immediate challenges at hand, he said, that career military staff often haven’t done much thinking about what they might do when their days in uniform are finished.
His company has found that the civilian roles that tend to match the skills and interests of former officers include financial services, sales and marketing, procurement and supply chain management, engineering, accounting, and human resources.
Although military life might give a person practical experience in these types of careers, most civilian positions require actual degrees or professional certifications. Career military staff often find they have to go back to school to obtain credentials that satisfy civilian employers.
“From a leadership perspective, being an officer in the army is probably the best MBA you could ever have,” said James Mayo, a director at Michael Page. “Unfortunately, potential employers would rather see a university diploma than 10 years of leadership on the battle field.”
Mr. Mayo said it is “quite understandable” that civilian hiring managers are unable to “visualize how skills from the military translate in civilian life.” But if ex-military staff can recast their experiences in civilian terms – such as giving examples of their leadership and skillful decision making under pressure in Afghanistan – it can put them at the head of the queue for civilian jobs that require quick action under competitive pressure, he said.
“Things that do translate are examples that show you are confident in a fast-changing situation, are good at grasping the realities around you and can calmly deliver results under high pressure,” Mr. Mayo said. “Those leadership traits are in high demand in the modern business world.”
Filling the experience gaps
The regulated military life can create gaps in practical skills, and these need to be filled in if an ex-soldier is to succeed in the business world, said Bart Mindszenthy, who mentors military people moving to civilian life as an instructor in management and communication at Royal Roads University’s faculty of management in Victoria.
“The structured element of the military offers order, direction and focus. But that same structure often frowns on thinking and looking out of the military box. It gives very clear parameters of how things are done, and where one’s job starts and stops. Commands are not to be questioned, but carried out,” Mr. Mindszenthy noted.
“So there is a mindset that is both wonderful and limiting. … As a rule, they need to learn such concepts as financial forecasting and planning and developing stakeholder relations,” he said, adding that military people are quick learners.
“My experience is that military people in the exit mode really do want to see a bigger picture and learn more about elements of the corporate world. There seems to be a personal drive to not just do well, but excel,” Mr. Mindszenthy said.
Building a profile
The military community is a very tight-knit one. “The bases where many soldiers serve are often remote, and the only interaction you often have is with other soldiers and their families. Therefore your exposure to people who are in a successful business career is limited. So when it comes time to enter the big business world, many ex-military people have few networking contacts that they can tap into,” said Mark Walden, a co-founder and president of Treble Victor Group, a not-for-profit networking organization for ex-military.
“While serving, you are not typically … sitting in a tent thinking of your CV and who might help you find a job. It’s not part of the consciousness – you are thinking of the work you have to do today, the mission at hand,” said Mr. Walden, who has experience in both the military and business worlds.
After serving as an infantry officer with the Royal Canadian Regiment in the 1990s, Mr. Walden worked for three years with Procter & Gamble as a customer service manager. He then returned to full-time duty in operations and planning for the 32 Canadian Brigade Group Headquarters in Toronto as a reservist. Since 2005, he has been working in commercial financial services for Royal Bank of Canada.
Mr. Walden said Treble Victor (whose tongue-in-cheek name is derived from the Latin Veni, vidi, vici) was started because “we saw a need for people who had been through the experience of transitioning, to act as mentors and help ex-service leaders make a smoother transition.”
The group’s monthly networking events in Toronto attract about 30 or 40 ex-military, many of whom have found a job; they offer advice and support to those getting out of the military, ranging from what pitfalls they encountered in the transition to civilian life to leads to help them establish a network and achieve their own success.
“The things we recommend emphasizing are the skills they’ve demonstrated in leadership, discipline, planning and organization, clear communications skills and, importantly, tenacity and perseverance,” Mr. Walden said.
Mr. Mack credits the connections and advice he gained at Treble Victor with helping him get on track to his new financial job when he left the army and returned to Canada two years ago.
His training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and three tours of duty in Afghanistan had given him ample experience in leadership, analysis and communication skills, but he realized that to get a job in finance, he needed specific industry credentials.
He enrolled in a one-year MBA program at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., and developed a network that led to a job in risk analysis with Royal Bank of Canada’s capital markets operation in Toronto.
“I think an important message to get out to employers is we’re not asking for sympathy for the experience that we had,” Mr. Mack said. “It is important that we be recognized for the skill we have and the capabilities we have.”
Tips for vets entering the job market
Reflect and refocus
To work out what you want to do in civilian life, you need to take time to identify your interests and strengths, and figure out what type of career would best suit you.
Reframe your experience
The military has roles and a language of its own. Look at how you can translate your experience into skills that civilian employers will recognize and want, in terms they will understand.
Develop a résumé
Outline what you’ve done in terms of responsibilities and achievements. When sending your CV, finding a person in the organization who understands the military will improve your chances of success. Posting your CV online may not be as successful, because résumés are often scanned by computer and yours is unlikely to have the titles and job experience to get included in the short list.
Training to get civilian certifications in the field you want to enter will put you on firmer ground. Some certifications may give credit for military experience.
Seek out friendlies
An ideal place to start is with people who understand your military experience, especially in the field you want to work in. Speak with recruiting firms and executives who have had military experience. There may be a club of former military staff in your area that organizes networking meetings to help each other out.
Networking is vital to develop the contacts and recognition in the industry you want to enter. Use your military connections and branch out, following up with all contacts suggested to you. Never be afraid to ask for help.
Accept that it will take time
From your military experience, you know that patience and planning leads to success. If a first job is not ideal and you decide to change positions later, that’s all right. You will have the civilian experience to make the second move easier.
Source: Michael Page International
One man’s move
Who: Eric Swidersky, Toronto
Rank: Captain, Air Operations, Canadian Forces
Saw duty in: Persian Gulf, UN monitoring in Sudan; air crew training in Winnipeg
Now: Seeking management job
Transition strategy: With 18 years of service, he left the forces two years ago. He realized he would need civilian credentials, and earned an MBA at Royal Roads University in Victoria. He then earned a carbon finance certification from the University of Toronto. “Even an MBA is a fairly general designation and I wanted to get a specialty,” he said.
Insight: “Sometimes it’s difficult to translate military experience and language into civilian terms. But it works both ways. For instance, now I say I was working on ‘cross-enterprise, multinational teams.’ You wouldn’t use that kind of language in the military: We could call that leadership.”
Reality check: “I have an extremely positive response in interviews, but there is still a lack of recognition of my military experience. My potential is at a senior managerial level, but I am also realistic. Because they aren’t familiar with my experience, I may have to start at a lower level, but I’m sure my potential would become clear and I would rise very quickly.”