August 30, 2014
Seth Gordon

Seth Gordon is the Director of the Veteran and Military Center at Wright State University and has a Ph.D. in Educational Policy and Leadership with a focus on Higher Education and Student Affairs from The Ohio State University.

 “It felt like a slap in the face,” a Marine said to me during a college consultation with his wife. He was considering returning to school and had been an NCO in the Marine Corps. He had a decent job, but felt his prospects were limited because he did not have a college degree.

It was a refrain I have heard multiple times over the past year. It became even more surprising when I learned what an NCO was. It began to make more sense when I came to understand how this leadership expertise and the training is often ignored by the civilian world. You protected people and property in hostile situations and now someone was questioning whether or not you could manage a small coffee shop or two person sales force.

When I was hired one year ago to be the Director of the Veteran and Military Center at Wright State University, I had a few things going for me: a decade of experience working with adult and non-traditional students; close family and friends who provided me insight into the military mindset; and I had seen Eric Greitens on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

When Dr. Greitens shared idea that service could be healing and transformative it struck a real chord with me. A two year AmeriCorps Alum, service had been the catalyst for me to build a career that focused on my own strengths. It had allowed me to feel like I made a difference.  I eventually hit my own professional wall, and realized that a college degree was an important standard in the social services world. I started college as a 25-year old freshman.

In economics the decision to invest in one’s skills and education is called Human Capital, an idea pioneered by 18th century political economist Adam Smith. In an article by Scott Sweatman, Human Capital is broken into three distinct areas: Education, Skills, and Experience. A college degree signals to employers that we have certain level of education and have the capacity to learn certain things, or have already done so. Certain degrees indicate a specific skill set – like engineering. Others also indicate a level of experience – nursing, physical therapy, and educational licenses all require practicums (i.e. experience) to complete.

Once we get into our careers our job is try to keep these things in equilibrium. Your skills, experience and education need to look like they go together. For instance, we expect a person with a law degree to be doing “lawyerly” things. If they are bartending or doing construction that may seem strange – they appear out of equilibrium.

For military personnel, the completion of certain MOS training, your rank — specifically reaching that NCO milestone — indicates a level of experience, skill and education within the military. In the civilian world we have no standardized “rank” across industries, and military nomenclature is opaque and hard to understand. This is especially frustrating when we discuss management and leadership, something the military often does much better than the civilian world.

For example, one of our older undergraduate students had 160 people under his command at once, not to mention the responsibility for equipment and management of resources. In the civilian world, that often takes years of experience and/or a college degree to have access to.  A lot is often lost in translation or not described at all. For that E-8, everyone who was an E-8 had similar experiences and training. That’s nothing to brag about right? Wrong.

The slap in the face that veterans feel is due to a lack of understanding of your experience and skills. To the un-informed, you are unbalanced in terms of your human capital investment because the civilian world has no equivalent way to process your experience and skill, but not the education. You appear out of equilibrium and appear out of sync with the civilian world.

Your goal, whether or not you choose to earn a degree, is figure out how to make yourself appear to be in equilibrium.

I often encounter veterans facing three distinct hurdles.

Understanding the Value of Your Training in a Larger Context

After only a year of working with veterans, I would love to only ever consider former NCO’s for any position I ever hire again. It doesn’t matter if they know about higher education – they know about people, management and leadership in a way that I think even many others may not. They know how to lead from the front; to have the hard conversations about hygiene, attitude, and work ethic. They know how to “smoke” people when necessary and how to manage moral when times are low. This is valuable in ANY industry.

Translating Your Qualifications

When I was a volunteer firefighter I would often hear “make it so simple even a firefighter can understand it.” Someone had to tell me not just that an NCO is a non-commissioned officer, but that there is standardized leadership training associated with it. Translate the acronyms, and explain the job and positions in civilian language. I once heard about a combat engineer who felt that his experience in bomb removal was useless. To me, the ability to operate under high amounts of stress and perform technical operations is an amazing cross over skill.

Learning How to Brag

I don’t mean talk shit, but to talk about your accomplishments in an honest way. Recognize that what may have seemed normal in the military is abnormal in the civilian world. And if any of this doesn’t come naturally, it doesn’t hurt to ask someone to assist.

All