In the Army you don’t get a job, you get an MOS – a military occupational specialty.
Sergeant Madeline Warrington was a 35M human intelligence collector. That meant that while she was in Iraq and Afghanistan, she gathered information on possible enemy threats.
When she left the military and started looking for a civilian job, Warrington, now in her 20s, found that the MOS meant nothing to most employers.
She said she applied to more than a hundred jobs.
“The ones that required essentially no skills were willing to contact me back,” Warrington said. “But the ones that were more office-job related, they would be like, ‘Hey we don’t think you have the necessary qualifications.’"
Like many members of the armed forces, Warrington did dangerous work overseas. She was responsible for troops and the safety of equipment and weapons. It was hard not to feel defeated as the rejections piled up.
"For the jobs I was going for, I knew I had the skill sets because of the various jobs I’ve done while in the military,” she said. “But it’s really hard to quantify that."
About 200,000 service members leave the military every year, according to the Pentagon. Some retire, some return to school on the GI Bill, but a large number, like Warrington, must find work.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported a downward trend in unemployment for post 9/11 veterans that mirrors the general population. Despite the decline, challenges remain for this unique group of job seekers.
Monica McNeal tries to help vets like Warrington. McNeal is the Seattle program director at Four Block, a national nonprofit that works with former service members looking for employment. She says service members often baffle hiring managers when they talk about their military job experience.
“In some cases maybe using way too many military terms that they average civilian who’s hiring maybe won’t understand," McNeal said. "You have to kind of interpret that on the resume so there’s a correlation between what they're MOS is and what the civilian task is.”
McNeal says the cultural shift of moving from active duty to civilian can be disorienting for new veterans seeking work.
Life in the armed forces is regimented. Everyone has a job. The hierarchy is clear. You can tell a lot about someone by looking at the patches and medals on their uniform.
McNeal says it's not so clear outside the military, where office culture can range from three-piece suits to flip flops.
“In a civilian world you might be talking to a multimillionaire owner of the company and you may never know that,” she said. “It's really important to learn to network and figure out how to get to know people and talk about yourself."
That’s what a group of young veterans at an airport hotel near Seattle are here to do with potential employers. The vets, shifting about nervously in their suits, work with Bradley Morris Inc, the Georgia-based military recruiting company.
Recruiter Ty Terrazone says the group spent the previous day in a kind of interviewing boot camp. They practice everything from solid handshakes to interviewing via Skype.
“What we do is break them into small groups, about six or seven in a group answering questions. ‘Tell me about yourself give me a time that you failed as a leader, tell me about some times that your leadership worked,’” Terrazone said.
That gives veterans an opportunity to work on framing their military service for potential non-military employers. Though many of the veterans here made contacts and picked up some interviewing skills, Terrazone says nobody actually walked away from the event with a job offer in hand.
And Warrington knows how hard it can be for vets in the job market to seal the deal. She ended up taking a job she believed she was overqualified for – selling new cars at a Nissan dealership.
“If you twist it just right, you have the purpose of helping people get into the vehicle that they need,” she said. “But it’s not on the same level as helping your country.”
She didn’t stay in that job for long.
Her husband, on active duty in the Army, learned he would be transferred from Joint Base Lewis-McCord to Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, North Carolina. So she quit the car dealership job to get ready for the move.
She said once she and her family arrive, she’ll start looking all over again.