After six years in the U.S. Army, Ritchie Thomas felt sure he could glide into a great corporate job. The Army had taken a raw 18-year-old and turned him into a military success on all fronts: a top-secret security clearance; a commendation letter from a brigadier general, and a key role as an encryption specialist helping Special Forces soldiers rescue POWs in Colombia.
Everyone from his parents to his Army buddies told Thomas: “You’re guaranteed.”
Then came a rude awakening. Shortly after finishing military service, Thomas began taking his case to civilian employers throughout the Atlanta metro area. He struck out every time. When he showed up in person, nobody cared about his military credentials. Even his formal black suit failed to impress; it tagged him as a stranger with no idea about today’s dress codes. He was a man adrift, struggling to connect with a world that didn’t understand him.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” Thomas recalls. “I handed out 50 of the worst resumes you’ve ever seen.” He switched his focus to online job ads, and that didn’t go any better. Desperate for any kind of work, Thomas took a humbling step backward. Abandoning his goal of continuing as a manager on the cutting edge of information technology, he accepted a job pulling wires for home-security systems and swapping out printer cartridges. It paid just $14 an hour.
Down but not out, Thomas has battled ever since to get his career back on track. Today, he is deputy director of IT at the Georgia Municipal Association. He drives a red Mercedes. He enjoys his own office and a team of people that reports to him. But the jitters of those earlier stumbles never go away. “It was a nightmare,” he recalls. “I hated every part of that first job. I felt so mediocre.”
Listen to the six million veterans in the U.S. workforce, and you can hear similar versions of Ritchie Thomas’s journey, again and again. There’s a huge disconnect between the true skills developed in the military — and what’s recognized in the civilian job market. Military-honed leadership, teamwork and sense of purpose barely register. Instead, veterans find themselves at a disadvantage because some in-service habits, such as a culture of respect, can be seen as a sign of stiffness. Settling into a new workplace culture often seems harder than the job itself.
This is the story of veterans’ fight for professional legitimacy. It’s a crisis hidden in plain sight, involving quiet struggles that even friends and neighbors never see. It’s also an ordeal that needn’t persist. Veterans who have prevailed are eager to share their hard-won tips, so the civilian career journey for the next cohort can be easier and more successful.
On the surface, everything looks fine. Just 3.2% of veterans are unemployed today, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That’s one of the lowest levels in the past 50 years. It’s a better showing than the overall unemployment rate of 3.4%. For the past 13 months, veterans have been more likely to find jobs than their civilian counterparts.