Healthcare Careers for Veterans: Turning Military Experience into Civilian Service Jobs
Whether you have left your military career or are planning on leaving, you may be wondering what to do next in the civilian world. Read on to learn about why a career in healthcare may be perfect for veterans, even if you didn’t have a medical or healthcare-related assignment during service. According to Sarah Roberts, head of the Military and Veterans Programs for LinkedIn, “About 55 percent of vets in transition want to do something totally different than what they did in the military.”
Regardless of your level of experience and education from your service, healthcare careers can be a fantastic fit for veterans. Many transferable skills, such as the ability to give and receive orders, how to remain calm in stressful situations, and so forth are all desirable in civilian workplace settings—particularly in the healthcare industry.
Most Transferrable Skills for Veterans Entering Healthcare
Many people who enter the military do so for the opportunity to make a difference. After retirement or discharge, few civilian careers allow you to make as much of a difference as those found in healthcare.
A nationwide survey of veterans showed healthcare is an overwhelmingly popular career. Why is healthcare such a great fit for veterans returning to civilian life from the military? Often, it’s an industry in which their military skills are most easily transferred—even if they never served as a medic.
ZipRecruiter names eight skills many military members find transfer easily to civilian life: teamwork, commitment, communication, dedication, following orders, problem-solving, adaptability, and respect. These are essential skills in healthcare. In your healthcare job interviews or job applications, you can emphasize experiences or achievements that demonstrate these skills, apart from any technical skills you have that may be relevant.
Healthcare workers never exist in a vacuum. CNAs, nurses, doctors, management, and patients must work together to find solutions to issues.
Commitment is essential, both in the eyes of employers and in the eyes of patients. Employers look for people who aren’t likely to leave soon, and patients want to see healthcare professionals who will stick around until their problem is solved.
In the military, “from informal meetings to high-pressure and fast-paced situations, you needed to quickly learn how to effectively communicate with everybody around you.” These skills are directly transferable to healthcare—one missed or delayed message can lower quality of care, and the ability to communicate in emergencies is not one every person possesses.
Dedication to learning and improving is essential. Like in the military, even if you’re trained in healthcare, you aren’t going to walk into work on the first day knowing everything. Your military experience with this situation will help you remain calm, continue to grow, and work your way up.
5. Following orders
During your service, you undoubtedly learned to follow instructions quickly and effectively while under pressure. This is essential while working in patient care, particularly if you work in a hospital or surgery. Listening to and following the orders of the person in charge can be a matter of life and death in some healthcare situations.
Unless a patient is visiting for an annual checkup, chances are they have a problem. Sometimes it’s an emergency, in which you’ll need to solve problems quickly; sometimes, you’ll have time to analyze the situation and make a plan. In the military, chances are you learned how to problem solve in both ways.
While the world of healthcare, like the military, is highly regimented—strict hours, specific expectations for nearly every instance, etc.—again like the military, things can change in an instant. You need the ability to adapt at a moment’s notice, whether it’s to address an emergency or fulfill a request to re-prioritize for the day.
A healthcare worker needs to treat everyone—coworkers, superiors, and patients—with respect. In the military, this was an expectation, and the same goes for the healthcare field. If people don’t feel respected, coworkers can feel resistant to working with you, or patients can feel uncomfortable with your treatment. Thankfully, your military training has likely prepared you to treat everyone as you would want to be treated—no matter what your personal feelings are.
Those who worked in military healthcare before ending their service may have an easier transition into healthcare careers in civilian life than other service members. Medical jargon remains largely the same in and out of service. Patient load is often similar. Federal standards for patient care remain the same. However, those who worked as a medic in the military often still need to return to school, as they don’t have an official degree or credential—so even if you have the knowledge and skills, you need to get that piece of paper.
How Many Veterans Work in Healthcare?
Healthcare is a popular career for veterans. A 2016 report found healthcare was the third-most common occupation among male veterans. More than 4% of all healthcare workers were veterans, and the most represented group among them were Gulf War veterans. In fact, Gulf War veterans were more likely to work in healthcare than non-veterans of the same age group.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) found in 2019 that 8.5% of all employed veterans work across the health services and education industries.
Do Healthcare Institutions Want to Hire Veterans?
In short: yes. “Employers don’t question the ability of military people to deal with high-stress environments,” said John Harol, a staff sergeant in the Massachusetts Air National Guard and partner at a recruiting agency in Connecticut. And as healthcare employers know, there are fewer high-stress environments than those in medicine.
On Veterans Day in 2013, the American Hospital Association committed to the White House Joining Forces initiative, a pledge to recruit and hire veterans in recognition of the many strengths veterans bring to the missions and work of hospitals. Since then, hospitals nationwide have led the charge in hiring veterans, going so far as to create a toolkit for hospitals to use when searching for outstanding veterans to hire. According to the toolkit, “qualified veterans bring enhanced skills to the workplace. In the health care setting, many of these abilities are highly desirable principles and standards that correspond directly to a hospital or health system’s own core values.”
As companies embrace the benefits of hiring veterans and connect these veterans to good jobs, some organizations have considered implementing a “reboot camp” to better connect veterans to the tactical requirements of the jobs they’re hired for.
To further the cause of connecting veterans to jobs in healthcare, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) offers a VA Learning Opportunities Residency (VALOR) program. This gives nursing students who have completed education in an accredited clinical program the opportunity to develop their skills at a VA-approved healthcare facility. More than 50% of these VALOR participants go on to be hired as registered nurses in the VA and often start above the entry-level salary rate for new graduates.
Challenges for Veterans Entering Healthcare
Veterans are 37% more likely to be underemployed than non-veterans. Armed services professionals can face significant hurdles in adjusting to the civilian workforce. They may seek structure similar to what they had during their service, but find jobs lack that structure. They may have relocated before, during, or after their service, meaning they don’t have connections, or have worked in a highly specialized industry and now face a very different job market.
Transitioning to a civilian healthcare career after military service will require knowledge of and respect for yourself. While taking that life-changing step, it may be helpful to utilize transition assistance services to help with the unique hurdles and challenges retired service members face when returning to civilian life.
A Note for Veterans With PTSD or Similar Challenges
Not all veterans have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—in fact, that number sits between 11% and 20% of those who have seen combat, according to the VA. And it’s not exclusive to veterans, as 8% of the overall population has this diagnosis.
If you’re one of the veterans who lives with PTSD or a similar challenge, you may want to think hard before joining a healthcare career. People with PTSD can be successful in the healthcare field. They need to seek out appropriate treatment, however, and some careers may be more fitting for them than others. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t pursue a job in healthcare; you just need to be aware of the challenges.
While the Americans With Disabilities Act requires employers to accommodate those with PTSD, this is only if accommodations don’t cause undue hardship for the employer—meaning they can’t cause a major change in their operations. If your triggers relate to everyday things in your healthcare facility, this could mean it’s not a good place for you.
If your triggers relate to seeing injuries, being involved in chaotic situations, or hearing loud noises, certain types of healthcare may not be right for you. Working in an emergency room or ambulance may not be ideal, for instance, but perhaps working in a long-term or primary care facility would be perfect. Bear in mind, however, that your training will likely involve some of these possible triggers, and you should have coping mechanisms in place for those instances.
The exception is if you opt for a career in healthcare management or administration or health data (such as medical billing and coding), which involves far less patient interaction or medical training—if any. While all jobs are stressful at times, these jobs are less likely to be life-and-death and tend to be in quieter workspaces.
Remember, you’re under no obligation to disclose your PTSD or any other health issue during the hiring process. Unfortunately, there is a stigma around it, and it may be a barrier to hiring—even though that’s not legal. Not all people with PTSD need accommodations, but if you do, the time to bring them up is after you’ve taken the job offer.
Most importantly, take care of yourself.
Credentialing Assistance and Funding for Military Service Members and/or Veterans
Many healthcare fields require credentials or have degree requirements, and paying for any formal coursework, examinations, or application fees can add up. Active military service members as well as veterans and military spouses may be eligible for funding to offset or fully cover the costs of maintaining or obtaining professional credentials.
The U.S. military operates its credentialing assistance (CA) benefit under each service branch’s COOL (Credentialing Opportunities On-Line) portals. The benefit is for active service members, so it pays to anticipate what credentials you may want in your post-military life before you leave active duty—potentially years before you retire or immediately after you decide to separate.
Eligible active-duty service members can receive up to $4,000 per year in Army Credentialing Assistance for “voluntary off-duty courses and/or exams leading to an industry-recognized academic or vocational credential” as listed by the Army. Certain approved vendors, such as MedCerts.com, specialize in healthcare credentialing, including programs for military spouses. The Army National Guard has its own credential assistance page.
The Navy Credentialing Opportunities On-Line (COOL) program as well as its Marine Corps COOL counterpart allows eligible individuals to apply for a voucher, which can then be used with a credentialing organization. The Coast Guard COOL program is similar but requires that the service member pay upfront and request reimbursement with documentation of prior approval.
The Air Force COOL’s program has a limit of $4,500 for certifications that are highly related to a service member’s primary Air Force specialty code, though in recent times it has pulled back the benefit to paying for the costs of credentials themselves and not the coursework that may precede them.
In addition, local or national veterans support organizations, foundations, and government agencies also assist in veterans obtaining credentials or offer funds to subsidize the cost of application fees or examination fees for veterans obtaining credentials for a civilian job. For example, in 2018, the state of California awarded $5 million to 10 nonprofit organizations to operate veterans’ employment assistance programs with an explicit focus on helping veterans obtain credentialing. Searching online for “credentialing assistance [city]” may be a way for veterans to identify local organizations that may have such financial assistance programs.
Hands-On Healthcare Careers for Veterans
The following are careers directly involved with patient care that may be perfect for veterans entering the field.
Certified Nursing Assistant
A certified nursing assistant (CNA) provides basic care, including feeding, bathing, dressing, grooming, and moving patients. CNAs must be adept at perceiving the requirements of a situation, patient, and have good coordination. To become a CNA, you’ll likely need vocational training or an equivalent associate degree as well as on-the-job experience.
A career as a CNA is a good fit for veterans for several reasons. Training is relatively quick—it can be done in as little as a few weeks, depending on your state’s requirements and the training you choose. CNA programs are usually inexpensive, and in some cases, may even be free.
A career as a CNA is a viable entry-level steppingstone to future healthcare careers. CNAs can expect to earn a median annual salary of around $29,660. The forecast for the profession looks strong—from 2018–2028, jobs for CNAs are expected to increase by 7%–10%, which is faster than average for other careers nationwide.
Various professional organizations, like the National Association of Health Care Assistants, support and elevate caregivers in their careers.
Registered Nurse (RN)
A registered nurse (RN) delivers nursing care to patients who may be ill, injured, recovering, or disabled. They’re tasked with developing and implementing care plans and may advise patients on health matters and disease prevention. An RN requires a minimum of an associate degree, but many choose to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). You’ll also need to take and pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN).
A returning veteran may excel in a career as an RN. An RN must be able to identify problems quickly and find a path to a solution. They need to communicate with a wide variety of people in different states of mind. RNs also must be highly dependable, work well with others, and display empathy. For these reasons, many returning veterans choose careers as RNs.
The road to becoming an RN is longer than that of a CNA and usually takes 18-24 months. An RN can expect to earn around $73,300 annually, and jobs for RNs are projected to increase by 11% between 2018–2028. Professional organizations like the American Nurses Association advocate for and guide RNs.
Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)
A licensed practical nurse (LPN) cares for patients in healthcare settings like hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, private homes, and more. They may be tasked with providing healthcare, answering patient questions, documenting patient care, and so on. An LPN usually works under the supervision of a registered nurse or physician. You may be a good candidate for a career as an LPN if you work well in a team, display leadership skills, and want to help vulnerable populations.
To work as an LPN, you’ll need a broad base of medical knowledge as well as clinical experience. You must finish an accredited program and pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Practical Nurses (NCLEX-PN). LPN programs can be completed in as few as 12 months, making the path to becoming an LPN shorter than those for some other healthcare careers.
In 2019, the median salary for an LPN was $47,480 annually. From 2018–2028, there are expected to be approximately 66,300 job openings for licensed LPNs—an increase of 11%. LPNs may find community and support in professional organizations like the National Association of Licensed Practical Nurses.
Nurse managers oversee coordinating and supervising services in healthcare settings, including hospitals, clinics, nursing facilities, public health organizations, and others. They may be tasked with planning or directing the activities and staff within their organization. In most cases, nurse managers require the same level of education as registered nurses, as well as several years of experience.
Nurse managers are leaders at their core, which is why veterans would do well in this career. In addition to helping patients, they help healthcare providers succeed in their jobs. They work well both independently and as a team, rely on relationships with others, and are good decision-makers.
As an experienced leader, a nurse manager can expect to earn an annual salary of about $100,980. Jobs for nurse managers are likely to increase by 11% from 2018–2028. Nurse managers may benefit from joining a professional organization like the American Organization for Nursing Leadership to continue to grow.
Emergency Medical Technician/Paramedic
Emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and paramedics may be the most direct connections between a veteran’s military experience and a civilian career in healthcare. EMTs are often the first healthcare providers to arrive at a scene. They assess situations, deliver emergency care, transport patients to facilities, and in some cases, extricate patients from dangerous situations. A military veteran trained in high-stakes situations is often supremely equipped to make the transition to civilian EMT.
To become an EMT, you’ll likely need EMT training courses. These courses and programs are often offered at community colleges, technical schools, hospitals, and police and fire academies.
An EMT or paramedic can expect to earn around $35,400 annually. Jobs in this field are predicted to grow 7%-10% between 2018–2028.
Healthcare Administration Careers for Veterans
If you want to work in medicine but not patient care, these are careers that allow you to do so.
Health informatics is a career that involves using data systems to improve medicine—a crossroads between medicine and information technology (IT). You may need as little as an Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.) degree to begin as an entry-level medical records specialist or health information technician. For careers with more responsibility, you may find you need a bachelor’s degree in a field like health informatics.
Health informatics requires clear and efficient communication, which many veterans excel at. Similarly, if you have a background in computer science or if you excel at data analysis and pattern recognition, this would be a stellar field with many growth opportunities.
Someone who is just starting their career in health informatics as, for example, a medical records and health information technician could earn an annual salary of $42,630. Meanwhile, an experienced professional who works as a computer and information systems manager may earn a median wage of $146,360.
The field of healthcare informatics is broad and growing. You may choose to explore a professional organization to learn more about what opportunities await.
The role of a hospital administrator is one of the most advanced leadership careers in healthcare. It requires managing and coordinating most operations of a healthcare facility. Although there isn’t a singular path to take to become a hospital administrator, you’d most likely need a master’s degree and substantial experience.
An experienced veteran would excel in this role. Hospital administrators must multi-task, foresee problems before they arise, rely on the reports of on-the-ground employees to inform their decision-making, and preside over a system that sees life and death every day.
O*Net Online reports a medical and health services manager can expect to earn a median annual salary of $100,980. These jobs are expected to grow by 11% from 2018-2028, which is much faster than average. Explore career options and resources available to determine if this path is right for you.
Public health experts, sometimes called epidemiologists depending on the requirements of their jobs, study the history, patterns, and logistics of health systems to analyze and predict public health threats like epidemics. Using data, and with knowledge of human psychology and civil infrastructure, these experts work mostly behind the scenes and are crucial to preventing health catastrophes. Most public health professionals need a master’s degree, though some careers may require a doctoral degree.
Jobs in public health require diligence, attention to detail, and excellent problem-solving skills. Thanks to these requirements, veterans may excel in these roles.
A public health epidemiologist can expect to earn a median annual salary of around $70,990. The field is predicted to grow somewhat slowly, from 4-6% between 2018-2028. However, those statistics were determined before the COVID-19 pandemic spread worldwide, so the need may change in the coming years.
A career in healthcare policy means working on behalf of a community to shape the decisions and laws that affect daily life. Policy experts identify and address systemic issues in healthcare. Veterans experienced in the importance of policy, process, research, and efficiency may do well in this career.
A policy expert will likely need to obtain a master’s degree in public policy, although educational requirements may vary based on the specific career you seek. The field of healthcare policy is vast. Depending on your preferred geographic area, healthcare topic, or community to serve, you have a multitude of opportunities to pursue. Do some research ahead of time to sharpen your focus and familiarize yourself with the field.
The salary for a healthcare policy expert will vary based on their specific career—experts may find themselves working as a policy analyst in state or federal government, as a systems analyst in a healthcare setting, or as a community advocate working for a nonprofit organization.
Resources for Veterans Entering Healthcare Careers
This Department of Labor-sponsored site has a page specifically for veterans transitioning into the civilian workforce, including a handy job matcher that allows you to enter your occupation and branch to see what jobs may fit well with your skills.
UnitedHealth Group—Military & Veterans
UnitedHealth Group is a national healthcare system with a section specifically for veterans hoping to work in healthcare. They have a skills translator to help you determine exactly what job is right for you, host hiring events, and offer internships specifically for veterans.
This site focuses on how to transition from the military to civilian healthcare work, particularly if you want to work for Veterans Affairs.
Veterans in Healthcare
“The most comprehensive job resources for Military Healthcare Professionals who are transitioning into the civilian world,” this site allows you to post your resume and search for jobs. Though this is a site for veterans, jobs are from medical facilities of all stripes.
National Healthcare Association
This organization offers allied health certification exams for jobs such as phlebotomist, pharmacy tech, or patient care tech and has a useful chart mapping military assignments to requirements for various exams, for those wanting to parlay medical experience in the military to a civilian allied health career.