Ready to take the next step in your career? Visit the career center closest to you. Learn more.

November 10, 2020

By Melanie Hitchcock, Navy Veteran and Manager of Programs, and Sam Friedman, Army Veteran and Salesforce Manager 

Attractive Mid Adult Female Army Vet Stands In Sunlit Window

We know the military is a cornerstone of San Diego County but you may be surprised to hear that, with the third largest veteran population of any county in the U.S.,1 about one in ten San Diegans is a veteran. And the city of San Diego is home to the largest metropolitan veteran workforce anywhere in the country.2 

And you’re likely disappointed to hear that San Diego has the second highest veteran unemployment rate of any city in the country, nearly double that of cities of similar size.3 

San Diego veterans are highly educated: 80% have attained some college and 38% of those hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, which is 6% higher than their non-veteran peers.4 

San Diego veterans want to stay in San Diego. Of the 15,000 service members in San Diego who transition out of the military each year, more than half report a desire to remain here.5 

And yet this large, well educated, experienced and committed talent pool is 16% more likely to experience unemployment than their non-veteran peers.6 

  • 76% of the top industries employ veterans at a lower rate than non-veterans7   
  • 33% are not in jobs using their skills (underemployed) 

Veterans are 16% more likely to be unemployed

The gap between veteran and civilian underemployment has grown drastically over the last decade and left unaddressed will continue to expand.8 Veteran unemployment isn’t simply an issue for another community to solve; San Diego sits at the heart of the problem. 

Veterans bring essential skills to the tablesuch as critical thinking, communication, collaboration and dependabilitywhich are going untapped in the midst of a market that demands these same skills. When we allow our veteran’s workplace contributions to stop after taking off the uniform, we aren’t just doing the individuals a disservice, we are missing out on the talented managers, analysts, teachers and skilled tradespeople our community needs to grow. 

Veteran unemployment isn’t just an issue we care about because we served; we both experienced it. Read our personal journeys below:  

Sam’s story 

I’m a veteran. After serving four years as an Army Cavalry officer, I decided to start a business when I separated in 2016. There were recruiter organizations that were placing junior military officers (JMO’s) like myself in corporate positions, but I wanted a change of pace and a corporate consulting career did not interest me.  

After some unforeseen issues, my business was unfortunately failing, and I needed to execute Plan B: look for a job. I had attended the mandatory military transition seminars and I had translated my resume into civilian terms and thought I should be okay. I had a bachelor’s degree, I had excellent evaluation reports and I had work experience managing about 150 employees and over $70 million of equipment.  

What followed was a deeply humbling and confusing career search experience. Despite signing up for all sorts of resume reviews, mentorship programs and even some organizations that promised to introduce me directly to hiring managers, I was unemployed for months. I felt disheartened and my savings were drying up.  

I got no response or rejected from hundreds, if not thousands, of job applications during my search, many of which were entry level management positions. I took a job as an Amazon courier and a second part-time job as a security guard to slow the financial bleed but I eventually found myself on the brink of foreclosure with no family or friends nearby.  

Fortunately, I eventually found a Salesforce part-time remote opportunity on LinkedIn that was created by a veteran-owned organization. It was the steppingstone I needed— six months later I started a new career as a Salesforce Project Manager here at the San Diego Workforce Partnership and I’ve been blessed with a wonderful new career in tech!  

While my experience was in some ways different from the average veteran since I transitioned to my own business rather than a more traditional career, this experience gave me a unique perspective into some of the gaps in online veteran services, and it also showed me the tremendous value of offering veterans training opportunities, internships or apprenticeships to bridge the industry-specific skill gap when starting a new career.  

Melanie’s story 

I’m a veteran. When I started my job search, I took advantage of every opportunity provided, including private companies, trainers and transition counselors. None of it resulted in employment. At the time, I thought I failed. However, 14 years and three companies later, I have a different perspective.  

I landed a job in workforce development. I had never heard of it before, but a friend encouraged me to apply and I discovered something—I had spent most of my Navy career in workforce development. I had no idea and neither did all those supportive professionals who were supposed to help me transition to the civilian workforce. If they had, I would have focused my search correctly and made use of all the conversations at the many network events I attended.  

What did I learn from this experience? 

Job search is a skill. If you don’t have search skills, you won’t be successful. What I got out of my first job search experience was a mounting fear of failing my family and a general sense of uselessness. How could I have avoided that? Knowing where to go and finding the right people to help me. I needed a way to understand the options available so I could decide where to go for my needs. This requires a robust networked system of partners.  

The services are too dispersed. Thanking veterans for their service is nice but they really need actions, not words. They need a system that helps them gain clarity on how to approach their next career. They need help to understand the nuances of the workforce system so they can connect their skills from the military and apply them in a meaningful way to the new workforce.  

While there are San Diego organizations working diligently to do this, like the San Diego Veterans Coalition and Rancho Santa Fe Foundation, the larger picture is still a patchwork of resources that is confusing and exhausting to navigate, and nearly impossible to use as part of a single, cohesive career search strategy. Veterans carry the drive and traits to be successful in their search, but they often lack the resources, knowledge and network to make their transition to the civilian workforce successful.  

Why There’s A Gap 

Translating Military Skills to the Civilian World 

It’s difficult to translate military experience into industry-specific terms that employers can understand and evaluate. This is often combined with the veteran’s lack of experience in developing resumes and other job search skills, which are unnecessary in the military.9  

Would my experience as a Platoon Leader translate as an Operations Manager or more appropriately a Project Manager? How do I translate my experience in the Infantry to a new career in health care? These types of questions make job search confusing and frustrating for many veterans as they try to conduct an effective career search. 

With thousands of organizations offering free job search and skills training to veterans, “the challenge is not mobilizing resources but enabling veterans to navigate these resources in a way that best fits their interests, talents and potential.”10   

Lack of Civilian Networks 

We all know social capital—who you know—is instrumental in building a career.  

With most professional relationships and networks developed in the military with other service members, veterans often lack a support network to help them once they transition. Only about 1.2% of veterans are plugged into civilian networks within their first year after transitioning from the military.11  

Stigmas and Stereotypes 

Perhaps most limiting, the many stigmas associated with veterans learned from pop culture, movies and television can hinder qualified veterans in the competitive job market. Amazon’s “Veteran Pathways” research dubbed this the “hero-victim dichotomy.”  

While the U.S. Military remains a respected institution with its members touted as “heroes,” there are also perceptions of veterans— revolving around PTSD, mental and emotional instability, suicide and violence—as victims who require assistance to be successful in civilian life.12 Both the hero and victim aspects of these perceptions are damaging as they set unrealistic expectations and create fear and hesitation to hire veterans among employers. 

The Untapped Talent of Veterans 

We are missing a great opportunity to utilize a talented, productive segment of our workforce and this hurts our economy.  

Veterans possess a valuable set of soft skills and character traits, such as discipline, reliability, work ethic, a solution-driven can-do attitude and the resilience and grit to break through obstacles to succeed. Take a look at some of the findings from LinkedIn’s Veteran Opportunity Report: 

  • Retention – Veterans remain with their initial company 8.3% longer than non-veterans 
  • Promotions – Veterans are 39% more likely to be promoted earlier than non-veterans 
  • Education – Veterans are 160% more likely than non-veterans to have a graduate degree or higher 
  • Experience – Veterans with bachelor’s degrees have 2.9x more work experience 

Veterans continuously acclimate to new environments and face entirely new challenges during their experience in the dynamic, pressurized environment of the military. As a result, they’re able to adjust quickly to a new position in the civilian workforce and approach problems with the attitude of life-long learners. Veterans are practiced team players who understand the importance of supporting their organization in meaningful ways without any expectations of personal benefit. These traits are desired by San Diego employers who understand that with these types of employees, their businesses will prosper and the economy will grow 

How to Create Change 

What We’re Working On 

Veterans have long received priority access to existing workforce services but we realize that this alone is insufficient.  We must proactively address the challenges of translation, networks and stigmas if we want to have an impact.  To accelerate this journey, The San Diego Workforce Partnership is collaborating with Solutions for Information Design on opportunities to connect MilGears, the Navy’s career development and transition system to our career search tool, My Next Move.

This integration would allow us to better understand veterans transitioning from the Navy and use that information to help them find meaningful employment using their skills and experience. This integration will allow us to better understand veterans transitioning from the Navy and use that information to help them find meaningful employment using their skills and experience.

What You Can Do 

  • As an individualdon’t assume you know what veterans are like based on the media. Every veteran is different, and the widely varied talents and attitudes of veterans may truly surprise you! Appreciate the unique perspective and background veterans can offer to an increasingly diverse American workplace and society and take action to introduce them to your network when the opportunity arises. 
  • As a community member, reach out to local military and new veterans and offer to introduce them to employers or mentor them with industry-specific advice. Simply having a network of friends, neighbors and professionals working in various sectors will make any veteran that much more likely to have a more successful transition.
  • As an employer, take time to learn the value veterans bring to your business and better understand their skills. Don’t make the veteran shoulder the entire responsibility to convey their business skills. Consider waiving industry experience requirements if the hard skills required for the job can be easily trained, recognizing that the adaptability and willingness to go the extra mile that veterans offer will only help to grow your company and extend its lifecycle. Don’t hire veterans out of obligation—do so because they are simply a great asset. 
  • As a practitioner, seek to understand what veterans have done in the military so you can help them translate their experience. They have managed processes, led people and worked hard in adverse conditions. Take a minute and talk with the veteran about their experience. They may think of themselves as just a “sergeant” but you see them as an “early career operations manager with experience leading a team of 15, maintaining financial accountability for over $5 million of equipment, and developing, implementing and supervising training for up to 100 coworkers.”  
    Give them all their options, not just the convenient ones. Explain the pathway. Know their business skill acumen and help them translate that to the workforce. Learn a little about the technical skills and figure out how that equates to open positions available now. Help them with their resume content, not just the pretty formatting. Give them real life tips on how to engage an employer who may have a bias against hiring them. Help them be comfortable in a civilian workplace setting that you know will feel a little foreign to them. 
  • As an educator, as with any unique population, work with your institution and certifying authorities to create flexible course structures for the individual credits needed to fill gaps identified during the credential evaluation process. Also, help the veteran understand the pathway and the structure of the certification or credential being sought. Consider online coursework for as many curricula as possible to accommodate the military member before they transition out of the military, setting them up for success early in their transition period.  
  • As a funder, consider supporting systems that help to organize the thousands of local, state and federal veteran services, rather than supporting the creation of new services. Help organizations that already exist do their jobs better. The ocean of organizations available to transitioning military is overwhelming. Connecting systems and offering a pathway to follow will be tremendously helpful new veterans during their career search.  

[10], page 15.


Connect With Us
Stay in the know

The Workforce Partnership is dedicated to providing San Diego Residents with the most up-to-date resources for finding a career.

Subscribe to our newsletter.