Counselors Campus to Careers Toolkit

For career counselors who guide student veterans
A veteran with a prosthetic leg is gaining on-the-job experience in a furniture factory and collaborating with two factory employees.

Career Reconnaissance

Supporting veterans in exploring career choices

Career dreams, hopes, and aspirations still matter

As a career counselor, you’re probably already onboard with this statement. Yet, veterans with newly acquired disabilities might need to be reminded that their career aspirations and talents matter now as much as they ever did. Throughout history, we’ve assumed that veterans (and others) with disabilities should feel lucky just to get any job. Or that their job search needs to be driven not by their aspirations, but by their limitations. Veterans (particularly those with newly acquired disabilities) might view their career options through the lens of these misperceptions.

Think again

A counselor is having a difficult discussion with a veteranToo often, veterans dismiss a career option because they think people with their disability can’t do that job. They need to think again. People with disabilities create ways to cope with their impairments that you and the veteran may not yet be aware of. Technologies and assistive devices for veterans with all types of disabilities have come a long way over the past decade. Also, work environments and tasks can be modified to accommodate veterans with disabilities.

Strengths first, disability second

Here’s a mantra to keep in mind. Focus on strengths, manage disability. Career exploration for veterans with disabilities can occur in four phases:

  • Start by exploring aspirations, talents, and experiences to begin to carve a career path.
  • Second, identify the main job functions/tasks of typical jobs in this career path.
  • Third, think through if and how the disability might impact each task, keeping in mind that many tasks probably will not be impacted by the disability.
  • Fourth, go to the Job Accommodation Network to explore accommodation options, if needed. Keep in mind that each workplace is different. A veteran might need an accommodation in one workplace, but not in another.

But what if they really want to be an NFL quarterback?

A close-up of a hand that is poised to throw a footballNever ignore what appears to be a wild career aspiration for a veteran with a disability. First, because they might surprise you—they might find ways of coping that you can’t yet imagine. Second, because there’s always something in this passion you need to pay attention to. What is it about being a quarterback that has captured their passion? A love of football? A desire to be strong and fit? Making lots of money? The excitement of the game? A desire to perform? Or something else?

If it truly looks unlikely that they could be that NFL quarterback, can they express that career passion in a different way? Can they become an athlete in a different sport? A coach? A sports journalist? The point is: There’s a reason why they have this strong and persistent career aspiration. Pay attention to it.

And…by the way…many NFL quarterbacks do have disabilities.

Use career development models and tools wisely

Most career counselors use some sort of career choice assessment tool or process in their practice. These tools can be an efficient way of gathering information. But, for veterans (and particularly for veterans with disabilities), these tools should be used with some caution. What’s a cool tool to you might be just another form to them. Veterans with disabilities often struggle to navigate complex and frustrating bureaucratic systems. So, filling out forms alone in a room might be a hot button for them. Also, these tools and assessments might not have been designed with veterans or people with disabilities in mind. Their unique issues might be missed if career counselors over-rely on these tools. Especially when working with veterans with disabilities, these tools should never replace simple, honest, open conversation.

Build upon skills learned in the military? Maybe, maybe not

We often assume that veterans will build upon the skills they learned while serving when embarking on their civilian career journey. But, according to a report from the Pew Research Center, many veterans choose to pivot—to not follow the careers they had while serving. When discussing career paths, focus not so much on the jobs they had in the military, but the job functions and tasks. Which parts of the job did they like most? Which did they like least? Why? It is in these conversations that a counselor can discover what kind of work conditions and environment are a good fit.

Also, keep in mind that some veterans might not be fully aware of issues such as pay scales and job security in civilian careers, so they might need to explore these issues to know what they’re signing up for. Use the Occupational Outlook Handbook to find out more about possible career paths, such as pay levels, how hard it is to get a job, working conditions, and educational requirements.

Further along in their life and career journey

A mother wearing a Navy officer uniform carries her young sonIf you’re used to working with traditional college-age students, you might need to shift gears when working with veterans. Veterans typically bring a great deal more life and career experience to the table and might be further in their career decision than typical college students. They might also be further in their family journey. Many are balancing family responsibilities while considering their career paths.

Be prepared to listen to understand where they are in their life and career journey so you can deal with the full range of considerations that go into their career path decisions.

Translating skills

Do you know what a Signal Support Systems Specialist does? Or a 33W Military Intelligence Systems Maintainer/Integrator does? Well, neither do most employers. Job titles, skills, and certifications often don’t translate easily to civilian workplace lingo. Use the Military Skills Translator to find out more about veterans’ job titles and skills.

Consider self-employment

Self-employment can be an option for veterans with or without disabilities. Research tells us that veterans are more likely than civilians to be self-employed, with about 4 million veterans currently owning their own business. And the businesses they lead tend to be successful.[1]

A veteran considering self-employment, should develop both a short- and long-range plan. The short-range plan could include interviewing veteran entrepreneurs, getting work experience in the type of business they want to start, and finding out about services and funds that are available for veterans with and without disabilities seeking self-employment. The long-range plan could include creating a business plan, getting funding, finding possible partners, and working out the details of business management. Throughout this process, creating connections and networking will be vital.

Work in the federal government

Veterans with and without disabilities are more likely than civilians to work in the federal government. Nearly one-third of federal employees are veterans. Why is this?

  • First, federal employment generally offers solid pay and benefits.
  • Second, the federal Veterans’ Preference gives veterans—particularly veterans with disabilities—a leg up in the selection process.
  • Third, a broad range of federal jobs are available, making federal employment interesting to veterans across many different career paths.
  • Finally, federal jobs are located in many communities across the country. Only about 15% of federal employees work in Washington DC.

Veterans with and without disabilities should expect the government’s hiring process to be longer than it is with most other employers. You can find ideas and application resources for veterans applying for federal employment in 7 Tips for Veterans to Land a Federal Job.

Consider the Veteran’s Career Planning Workbook

The Veteran’s Career Planning Workbook was designed specifically for veteran students with disabilities who are transitioning to employment. Using the strengths first, disability second mantra, the Workbook is a conversation guide to be used as counselors and veteran students co-explore career paths. Tool 6 focuses on the Workbook and its use in counseling veteran students.


[1] National Veterans Foundation (NVF) Lifeline for Vets. (2017, July 9). Veteran business owners and their recipe for success.