Returning service personnel bring proven skills and valuable training to the engineering workplace, though misapprehensions regarding military work experience and service disabilities can complicate their private sector careers.
We spoke with Robert Jackson, Associate Editor at The Way Ahead (a Society of Petroleum Engineers publication) and Operations Manager for Mountaineer Keystone and Jacques Fournier, Senior Director of Health Customer Solutions Development at Creative Computing Solutions, about the unique value veterans bring to the workplace, their private sector challenges and which companies are best suited to returning military personnel.
Why Veterans Make Great Engineers
In many ways, veterans make ideal employees. Setting aside qualitative factors, such appeals to patriotism or gratitude, military service inculcates veterans with measurably valuable characteristics. Jackson thinks these fire-hardened qualities make veterans more valuable than comparably qualified civilians. “Put simply, there are not many – if any – situations in the workforce more stressful than those experienced in the military,” he says. “The ability to make decisions while under pressure at a young age, the methodical problem solving techniques gained, and real world leadership experience put veterans well ahead of their peers in many categories.”
Producing quality work under pressure is an asset in any field. In military service, drive and attention to detail are survival priorities. When lives may depend on a job done right, the first time and on time, the result is a level of drive you’ll rarely find elsewhere. “Many veterans, especially those who have served in combat or combat support, provide a very strong sense of mission,” says Fournier. “That strong mission focus translates directly to excellent delivery for our customers.”
Even more important is the deep appreciation and understanding of teamwork that emerges from spending time in the Armed Services. “There is no larger team than the US Military,” Jackson says. Modern engineering challenges demand personnel who thrive in team environments, trained to coordinate their actions within a larger framework of nested responsibilities and dependencies. As many engineers can attest, this is a learned skill and not one that everyone is able or willing to learn to the level typical among military veterans.
“All things being equal,” Fournier says, “we would seek out veterans with the appropriate skills when staffing programs for our Defense, Intel, Military Health and Veteran’s Administration customers.” Creative Computing Solutions was named to the Military Times Best for Vets list of employers in 2013, partly due to their appreciation for veteran personnel and – arguably – due to their work with creating IT solutions to improve the state of veteran healthcare.
“We have Military and Naval Academy graduates in our workforce and will include veterans in our future searches,” says Jackson.
What Holds Veterans Back?
Misapprehensions regarding military job skills and service disabilities complicate the employment picture for returning service personnel. One the one hand, there is an understandable lack of information in the private sector as to what job skills a veteran can be expected to have at hiring. “Most jobs in the military do not translate 100% to civilian jobs,” Jackson says, “which means companies believe they will spend more in training costs.” This holds true across a number of roles; a combat medic, for example, could not apply for a job as a civilian EMT without first retraining from the beginning. While entering the private sector, a highly-trained veteran may not look as good on paper as a relatively green, civilian candidate.
The perceived experience gap is not the worst complication veterans face in the employment marketplace, unfortunately. “There is still a stigma associated with being service disabled that often limits opportunity for service members,” Fournier says. “Many disabilities are not understood well enough by people in industry, and that can disadvantage veterans during the hiring process or in the work environment.”
PTSD, being relatively rare in the civilian community, can simply frighten an employer into quietly passing on a veteran’s application. The condition is poorly understood, for one, and the subject of lurid headlines in the press. Together, this creates apprehension in some civilian employers. “Many returning men and women have a difficult time readjusting to the ‘real world’ and that is seen as a disadvantage,” Jackson says. “The truth is, military personnel will learn faster and work harder than most when given the opportunity.”
Where are Veterans in Demand?
Were service disabilities and the perception of an experience gap not persistent problems in the workforce, veterans would be high-demand candidates for almost any position. While the bulk of the private sector catches up, however, some engineering specialties are a natural fit for returning military personnel.
Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs
“Although veterans can and have excelled in all facets of commercial life,” says Fournier, “companies who focus on the Department of Defense and Veterans Administration offer many great opportunities for returning service personnel.” The cultural transition between service and Defense Department or VA work is smoothed, in part, due to the close cooperation between those organizations and the military and the prevalence of veterans among both coworkers and customers. In the case of the Veterans Administration, what might otherwise complicate a veteran’s career – service disabilities and the difficult transition to civilian life – can better inform and inspire their work. “These customers and the companies that serve them benefit from the mission knowledge gained during active duty and as a veteran.”
Aerospace and Defense Industry
A Military.com post identifying the “Top 10 Military Employers” is a good illustration of the ongoing commitment of defense industry companies to hire former servicemembers. Not to mention – the Aerospace and Defense Industries are two of the largest engineering employers, period. From the Military.com list:
#3 – Northrop Grumman
#4 – L-3 Communications
#5 – Lockheed Martin
#7 – BAE Systems
#9 – CACI International
#10 – The Boeing Company
Veterans can also leverage an existing security clearance to potentially very lucrative civilian employment opportunities. From our previous article “Why You Want a Security Clearance Job,” we uncovered the fact that employees with security clearances average as much as 25% higher pay than those without.
Oil and Gas Industry
Jackson, who works in exploration and production in the Marcellus Shale, recommends the petroleum engineering industry. “Oilfield companies currently offer the easiest transition and the best pay,” he says. “Much of the work is in a decentralized environment and outdoors.” At the moment, petroleum engineering is the highest paid engineering specialty, with engineers earning six-figure salaries with undergraduate degrees.
In many respects, petroleum engineering is tailor-made for returning veterans. There is a broad, cultural understanding of the value and special circumstances of veterans, informed by the number of former military personnel who work at all levels of the industry. Additionally, pay and advancement are less contingent on graduate-level education than in other fields. Skills, experience, and drive are much more important. “I would suggest looking into larger companies that have training programs,” Jackson says, “like Exxon, Chesapeake, CenterPoint, and Schlumberger.”
Working outside, making six figures, in an industry than appreciates military service and is sensitive to the experience of returning veterans? With all due respect to the Veterans Administration, that sounds just about perfect.