Editor’s Note: This article was written by Tranette Ledford, owner of Texas PR firm Tranette Ledford Communications.
As the occasional headlines remind, many returning women veterans are finding it a challenge to land second careers. While unemployment rates vary per source or quarterly report, the specific challenges don’t. Many women returning from service in Iraq and Afghanistan, even with hard skills and a security clearance, are facing a new battle on the home front; a job market rife with obstacles inherent in being female and a military veteran. The good news is that organizations are growing in numbers and scope as women veterans increasingly turn to themselves to find solutions and break barriers.
“If not us, who?” asked Kimberly Olson, CEO of Grace After Fire, a nonprofit dedicated to providing women veterans with knowledge, insight and renewal. Olson is a former Air Force command pilot who retired as a colonel after 25 years of service. She is now a Vision 2020 Texas National Delegate and leads the Grace After Fire organization’s efforts to help guide women veterans through outreach, networking and peer support programs.
“Women returning from active duty are entering the perfect storm,” said Olson. “There are specific circumstances that directly affect their re-entry to the civilian workforce. No matter their rank, education or the fact that they are security cleared, one of the reasons they’re finding trouble getting jobs is that they are the nurturers. They return home and the first thing they want to do is restore the family. For every female veteran I see, I know there are six people relying on her. She’s the nucleus. And that sets her up to care for others first, which robs her of the transition period. She’s slow to go back to school or enter the marketplace.”
Getting into the game late may mean a time gap on the resume, a red flag to hiring managers. But that’s not the only one.
“Society looks at women veterans differently,” she said. “If she served in a diesel shop for example, and goes to get a similar civilian job, she’s just not going to look like a diesel mechanic. They won’t know what to do with her. They may be thinking they have to take down the girlie posters.”
According to Olson, countering stereotypes often takes more work for women veterans.
“Sometimes women have trouble translating their skill sets to civilian employers,” she said. “They need to learn the language, particularly with employers who have never served in the military. They also need to get well-versed in translating other assets because they have great nontraditional skill sets.”
Because of family expectations and societal stereotypes, female veterans often end up downplaying their skills and values.
“They learn that people don’t get what they’ve done in the military, and over time, they stop telling their military service story,” she said. “For men, it’s the first or second thing they tell people. For women, it’s the fifth or sixth thing they tell.”
Olson can attest to the fact that when women are active in peer support groups, they increase their opportunities to move forward, both in life and in the job hunt. They meet others with whom they can relate, learn more about how to best present themselves to prospective employers and how to tailor their interests to the job search.
“Some women who drove trucks in the military don’t want to come home and drive an 18-wheeler,” said Olson. “They want to get back in touch with being a woman. In the military, we crush that and grind it into sand. So they have to take back that part of themselves, which adds another layer to the challenges they face.”
Celia Szelwach agrees that tapping into women veteran support groups can be advantageous personally and professionally. A West Point graduate and former Army captain, Szelwach has also worked with the Department of Veteran Affairs as an advisor. In 2007, she formed Women Veterans Network (WOVEN), a volunteer support group offering women veterans opportunities to connect for social support and networking opportunities.
“I became aware of the challenges women veterans face and experienced some of those challenges myself,” said Szelwach. “When transitioning, women veterans need to network and establish connections outside the military. This can be difficult unless they have each other to turn to. We are able to help each other find resources we might not otherwise know about or have an introduction to. That’s why we are here.”
Olson and Szelwach represent only two of the many women veteran support groups available online and in physical locations. In addition to making connections and finding peer to peer support, transitioning women learn more about specific steps they can take to enhance their opportunities for a successful transition. Their advice:
- Be upfront about your security clearance, education and other certifications. The value of a security clearance is only going up. If you have one, state it. Ditto for any credentials. Instead of downplaying military service, be bold about what you’ve attained.
- Learn to speak employer. Continue to refine the way you explain your skills and experience. Tell your story with job description adjectives that match your skills instead of your military job titles. Never assume employers understand what you’ve done, even if they have prior military service themselves. Make your expertise clear.
- Network. Consider networking as the never-ending story. Fellow veterans who have made the transition are great resources for mentors. Ask for advice or introductions, not a job. Continue to expand your network as a course of action in the job hunt.
- Start the job search early. Even as you work to reestablish your role in the family, continue to put some time into the steps necessary for a second career.
For more information:
Grace After Fire: www.graceafterfire.org