Employment Coaching for the Veteran at Your Door: Practical Insights from a Non-profit

By Paulette M. Risher

There are some 10.8 million veterans in the U.S. workforce today (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016) and career development practitioners may find themselves with one of these veterans at their door seeking professional assistance. Many questions arise. How is this veteran different than any other client/student/advisee/mentee? What advice does this veteran want and need? How can I relate to them?

The insights and recommendations which follow are based on the experience of Still Serving Veterans (SSV), an Alabama-based registered 501(c)(3) founded in 2006. SSV assists veterans in securing meaningful employment and the veteran benefits they have earned.  In 2015, SSV conducted over 2,200 one-on-one employment counseling sessions and helped 523 veterans find work. Finding good work made a difference in the lives of these veterans and their families for as David Blustein (2006) suggested, work is tied to identity, provides a sense of coherence in social interaction, contributes to the economy and society, binds people to others across time and culture, and holds personal meaning. Work is not only associated with financial survival, but with emotional well-being (Krueger & Muller, 2011; Blustein, 2008). This is the sphere of influence of not only Still Serving Veterans, but of career development professionals.

Veteran Demographics

Veterans are not a homogeneous group but rather are demographically diverse in terms of age, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, education, socio-economic status, and geography. They also vary substantially in their physical and emotional health. While some veterans suffer from significant physical disabilities and emotional issues associated directly with their military service, most do not. This is a nuanced spectrum. Humensky, Jordan, Stroupe, and Haynes, (2013) observed that veterans are not always forthcoming about their current state of physical and emotional health. These researchers also found evidence that a veteran’s state of health (physical and psychological) may have an increasingly negative effect on employment over time. Some veterans may simply not be able to do the type of work they desire.

The Wants and Needs of Veteran Clients

Typically, veterans present themselves seeking assistance with the practical aspects of the job search. They want help with resumes, locating jobs, interview preparation, and salary negotiations. While these are the types of assistance they want, experience shows that there is additional assistance which veteran job seekers often need. Specifically, they need sound advice in four areas.

1. Translating Military Experience into Civilian Language
Veterans need assistance and coaching in translating their military skills and experience into job-specific, civilian-intelligible language. Today an employer gets an average of 118-250 applicants per position and a resume gets on average an eight second look (Bolles, 2016). A resume filled with military jargon is simply set aside.

2. Gaining a Realistic Sense of Worth
Some veterans need assistance in gaining a realistic sense of their worth in their target job market. Lower salaries and more junior work than they had been led to expect by friends, family, and even military transition programs come as a shock to many veterans. Fortunately, Brown and Routon (2016) found that often veterans of recent wars made up for this wage gap after a few years once as they proved themselves adaptive to the civilian workplace.

3. Understanding Civilian Workplace Culture
Veterans need help in understanding the civilian workplace culture. Accustomed to hard work, harsh conditions, purpose, a familiar culture, and ready comradery, veterans can feel, and can be, lost in a civilian workplace. Employers worry about “cultural fit.” Will the veteran be able to adjust to the lack of structure, to a more fluid leadership model, to the less clear standards of performance and promotion? Career development counselors can help the veteran be more prepared for what is literally “culture shock.”

4. Crafting Stories
Veterans need help crafting and practicing their stories. They must to be able to describe who they are, what they have done, and why they should be hired. Self-promoting is counter-cultural in the military and “bragging” about oneself can feel awkward and foreign. Veterans need encouragement and coaching to do this comfortably and conversationally.

Forging a Relationship of Trust

Do I trust you? That is the question that is never far from the mind of a veteran. Do I trust that you will tell the truth, keep my confidences in confidence, honor my service, and give me good advice? Do I trust that you have my back? Here are seven proven recommendations which project trustworthiness with veterans:

  • Talk from your heart, not a script. Listen.
  • Do what you say you will and expect them to do likewise. Follow through and follow up.
  • Do not assume or suggest that you know what they have experienced, even if you are a veteran. Each person’s walk is unique.
  • Respect their boundaries.
  • Talk to them as “adults,” even if they are students. They have earned it.
  • Assure them that transition can be an emotional roller-coaster and anger, bargaining, denial, and depression are a normal part of the transition process (Bridges, 2009).
  • If you sense that they are having serious physical or emotional issues, make the referral and do so with a “warm handoff” to another caring human being.

Coaching, mentoring, and advising veterans is serious and meaningful work. These men and women have given much and they have much more to give -- if we can help them find their place in the civilian workplace than we have made a difference.


Blustein, D. L. (2006). The psychology of working: A new perspective for career development, counseling, and public policy. Mahwah, N.J: Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers. doi: 10.1002/j.2161-0045.2008.tb00095.x

Blustein, D.L., (2008). The role of work in psychological health and well-being: A conceptual, historical, and public policy perspective. American Psychologist, 63(4), 228-240. Retrieved from the ProQuest database.

Bolles, R. N. (2011). What color is your parachute? 2016 edition: A practical manual for job-hunters and career-changers. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press. doi: 10.1002/ccd.26126

Bridges, W. (2009). Managing transitions: Making the most of change (3rd ed.). Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Lifelong Books. doi:10.1177/001872674700100103

Brown, C. & Routon, P.W. (2016). Military service and the civilian labor force: Time- and income-based evidence. Armed Forces & Society, 42(1), 1-23. Retrieved from Sage Publications database.

Humensky, J., Jordan, N., Stroupe, K., & Hynes, D. (2013). How are Iraq/Afghanistan era veterans faring in the labor market? Armed Forces & Society, 39(1), 158-183. Retrieved from Sage Publications database.

Krueger, A., & Muller, A. (2011). Job search, emotional well-being, and job finding in a period of mass unemployment: Evidence from high-frequency longitudinal data. Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Spring, 1-82. Retrieved from ProQuest database.

U.S. Census Bureau. (2016). The employment situation—January 2016. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf


Paulette M RisherPaulette M. Risher is the Program Director for Veteran Employment Services for Still Serving Veteran in Huntsville, AL.  In this role, she manages a generous grant from the Call of Duty Endowment (CODE) and oversees three delivery teams.  In 2006, Paulette retired twice, once as a Air Force civilian psychologist and once as an Army Major General with 34 years of active and reserve service.  Academically she holds a BS and MA in Psychology and an MEd.  Paulette is a vocal veterans' advocate and serves on  Governor Bentley's Alabama Veteran's Network (AlaVetNet) Commission as the Co-Chair of the Employment Committee. prisher@stillservingveterans.org

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