What was your job in the army? How you respond to an interview matters


“Water…Water…everywhere, the fate of the city is sealed.” Similar cries were heard throughout the day on August 29, 2005. Katrina had taken the city of New Orleans. The wind was bad, but when the levee broke, the flood waters were horrible. Eighty percent of New Orleans was underwater. St. Bernard Parish was completely submerged as billions of gallons besieged more than 100,000 homes. Change had come to New Orleans and the city would never be the same again.

The Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina Needed Leaders

Reconstruction became the goal. Unsurprisingly, an army of executives, project managers (PMs), and engineers were called in to rebuild a stronger levee system. Many active duty and former servicemen answered the call to help rebuild a devastated city. Former Vietnam-era Sergeant John Bronson found himself at the center of the reconstruction effort, as he had become a senior project manager for the levee system reconstruction effort.

Like many young men and women in 1967, Sergeant John Bronson volunteered for service. Many years after joining the military, John rose through the ranks in civilian supervisory and project management positions. In 2005, John was busy doing project management for a large company. Like most of us, he watched the weather closely during Hurricane Katrina and had no idea such devastation was coming. Likewise, John was completely unaware of his impending involvement in the rebuilding of New Orleans.

From soldier to project manager

John was selected to be the lead project manager for the levee effort. Why? He believes his success stems from the basic skills learned in the military. Along with his desire to excel, he believes his project skills took root while working with the 7th Infantry Division. John’s number one axiom is that a project manager should understand the work of every TEAM member. Additionally, John understands that the ability to adapt to the environment is critical. Finally, John learned how to interview well and describe his skills accurately.

Military traits in demand

Traits such as leadership, discipline, flexibility, and planning are common to military experience. These attributes are vital in civilian life, just as they are in military life. The good news is that you possess these skills through accomplishing your mission in the Service. Just like John, you have the foundation for greatness, regardless of your career field.

The other good news is that civil societies know your capacities. Finding untapped talent to fill in-demand positions is a top priority for civilian employers. Hiring the military is an effective strategy for businesses and corporations. Not only do they gain high-performing employees with low turnover, but companies also gain customer goodwill and receive a public image boost through their commitment to hiring more military veterans. Even better, you already have a security clearance when you leave the military.

But it all comes down to maintenance

Unfortunately, in interviews, members do not elaborate or brag about their responsibilities or accomplishments. This makes translating skill sets to the interviewer a challenge. When recently asked in an interview, “What was your job in the service?” the soldier replied, “I was a tanker.”

However, if HR or the hiring manager had gone further, or if the soldier had elaborated, the interview would have taken a very different direction and much more would have been revealed about his service. They would have learned that he was responsible for the supervision of more than 40 soldiers, as well as the welfare and livelihood of each of them. He knew how to manage and supervise in difficult, even appalling environments. If they came under fire and someone was injured, he was responsible for ensuring that the injured received medical attention. He trained his TEAM to the standard.

Additionally, he was assigned millions of dollars worth of equipment and was responsible for the movement, inventory, loading and unloading, and maintenance of every system and associated technology. He also trained everyone under him to perform these tasks, as he knew that every TEAM member needed cross-training – in case things went wrong, one bad day.

He performed many other tasks, often in a grueling environment. This type of response indicates the true breadth and depth of the soldier’s professional skills, roles and responsibilities. Obviously, he was a much better candidate and much more capable than “I was a tanker”.

Humility is an important characteristic, but you need to communicate your experience during an interview. Don’t belittle your previous experience so quickly or assume that someone won’t understand.

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