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Mary M. Keller: Military-Connected Youth — A Unique Talent Pool

Children from military families often develop the “soft skills” needed to close the U.S. skills gap — let’s invest in them.


The fact that there’s a deplorable gap in the “hard skills” required for many tech-intensive, “middle skills” careers has been well documented. Jobs remain unfilled despite a pool of applicants — most of whom have neither the required education nor credentials. Our nation’s best minds are hard at work addressing this skills gap for both the current and future workforce and ensuring that every high school student graduates college and is career-ready.

Less well-known is the troubling gap in the quest to find individuals with another skill set — the essential “soft skills” required for job success. Employment experts say that mastery of the hard skills may get a candidate in the door, while proficiency in the critical “soft skills” is the strongest indicator of long-term employment success.

Soft skills refer to such non-tangibles as grit, determination, communication (written and interpersonal), teamwork, collaboration, reliability, conflict resolution, adaptability, time management, problem-solving, initiative and integrity. Unlike hard skills, which can be acquired via high school and post-secondary education, soft skills are not easily taught. Rather, they are developed over the course of an individual’s maturation and are most often the combined result of innate personality traits, the encouragement and modeling of caring family members, teachers, mentors, as well as the right environment.

The children of our nation’s military are often put to life’s most difficult tests during frequent moves, school transitions, parental deployments and sometimes tremendous loss. Did you know, military kids serve, too?

  • The majority of those serving in our military are parents. There are more than 1.2 million children in grades K-12 with parents who are serving.
  • Active Duty service families move between six and nine times in the course of a child’s K-12 education.
  • As a child so aptly put it—“Gone is gone.” Almost all military children, including those of the National Guard and Reserve, have been separated from a parent for lengthy stretches of time while dad or mom (or both parents) fulfill their military mission. More than 2 million children have had a parent deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan, often with multiple deployments.
  • Today’s high school students don’t remember a time when their military parents weren’t going to war. They were, after all, infants or toddlers in September 2001.
  • After 15 years of conflict, more than 50,000 children have either lost a parent or had a wounded, ill or injured parent who returned home profoundly changed.

Yet, despite these challenges, the majority of military and veteran-connected youth are remarkably resilient — especially when they are surrounded by well-prepared educators, community members and family. By virtue of their life experiences, they have acquired many of same essential skills valued by employers: collaboration, grit, determination, reliability, adaptability, initiative, integrity and more. Military-connected children may very well provide an unrealized talent pool for employers.

How might business leaders and employers encourage our youth and benefit from their unique skills and experiences?

  • Seek and hire young adults who have thrived as military children. Celebrate their unique experiences and encourage them to share the lessons they’ve learned through constant mobility, family separation and change.
  • Ensure that the education for military children provides them with the technical skills to complement the soft skills they are gaining. For example, work with local schools to ensure that all children — military-connected youth and other mobile students — receive consistent, rigorous and appropriate educations to graduate college and career-ready. An emphasis on STEM-related courses is a must. Include support for Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs, where students can become technically proficient and certified in areas like healthcare, manufacturing and engineering.

There is no single, simple solution to addressing the skills gap. But there are multiple pathways to providing a robust, talented workforce today and into the future. Working with the children of our nation’s military would be a service to our economy, our military families and our country.

(Top image: Courtesy of the Military Child Education Coalition)


Mary M. Keller, Ed.D., is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Military Child Education Coalition (






All views expressed are those of the author.

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