Transitioning from the military to a civilian career

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For many veterans, making the change from service in the armed forces to civilian life and the workforce here can feel challenging. However, just as the military provided you with the experience and tools necessary to be successful in combat, it also provided you with the skills to be successful in your career. Demonstrate to potential employers just how much transferable experience you have and also prepare your soft skills by following these steps in getting ready for interviews and job applications.

Military experience on your résumé
Military experience can easily be rendered into work and leadership experience on a résumé. Jeff Stelle, a USAF veteran and employee of Science Applications International Corp., a defense contractor, says, “Military careers usually end with the individual being in a leadership position of some form. Whether you were a Squad Leader of four or led a platoon of 50, let that be known in numbers. ‘Retired as a Staff Sergeant’ can be written as ‘Lead Supervisor in charge of 12 decorated soldiers.’ Numbers speak volumes, and if you’ve ever been tasked with a project or leadership duty role, put a number to that duty title, instant managerial experience.”

The same can be done for the “career achievements/skills” section of your résumé. Stelle says, “We all end up with a few awards and decorations, and many military awards now are given out for organizational excellence. Did your shop win an Outstanding Unit award? Employers love to know that you’ve been part of a winning team before.”

Military skills that are also valued office skills
An interview or a cover letter can be a great opportunity to explain how your military experience has prepared you to be an asset to the company. Not sure what attributes to bring up? Frank Strong, who served in the reserve components of the military for 19 years and is now director of PR at Vocus, a cloud-based marketing and PR software provider, says, “Initiative is action in the absence of orders. Military folks are trained to understand the mission, and then empowered, within control measures, to make it happen. In other words, because veterans can understand the task assigned and the purpose of that task, they can come up with creative ways to accomplish the task even when unforeseen obstacles are encountered. This is invaluable in business.”

Companies often have core values that they try to adhere to, which can be a good place to begin drawing parallels to with your military experience. Practice interviewing with a friend or family member, and find ways to talk about how your military experience has prepared you for the company and for the specific role you’re applying for there. Demonstrating that there is a connection between your past experience and the position you’re considering will convince employers that you’re fully prepared for the next step in your career.

Recognizing military and work culture differences
While military experience can prepare you for a very successful career, it’s also important to recognize that there will be a transition between the military and civilian life in your career. Dr. Harry Croft, a former army doctor and currently medical director and principal investigator for the San Antonio Psychiatric Research Center, as well as author of “I Always Sit with My Back to the Wall,” says, “Understand the differences between the military community (your former job) and the civilian community (the job you’re going into). The military recognizes you by your rank, time-in-grade and job description. The civilian community is different: people dress alike, socialize with co-workers, and things are looser and not always by the book.”

There are also some mental preparations you may have to go through in order to be ready for a job outside of the military. “Learn everything you can about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and better understand why you do what you do,” Dr. Croft says. “It’s important to know what your symptoms are, what triggers them and how to cope. Without the knowledge, you’re likely to get in trouble and be misunderstood.”

Communicating the perks of having a veteran as an employee
Many companies know first-hand the benefits of having veterans as employees. Continue the good reputation by sharing what makes veterans such a valuable addition to the workforce. Molly Mahoney Matthews, president and CEO of The Starfish Group, a communications and PR specialist group, says, “Veterans are men and woman who have showed up and performed. They successfully completed rigorous training programs, met job requirements, sacrificed for their country and delivered a good work product. This is a fabulous credential and as job candidates they should be proud and speak highly of their service. They also need to approach the civilian world with positive expectancy and assure the future employer they are excited about developing a life’s work outside of the military and are open to learning all they can to deliver and serve in this new arena.”

  1. While preparing Army Retirement Letter ensure that you have performed your last eight years of qualifying service while a member of the Active Reserve.
    <a href=””>Army Retirement Letter</a>

  2. At Westwood we have a lot of students who pursue a degree after serving our country. They are consistently among our most dedicated and hard-working students in the classroom and we appreciate the real-world suggestions you provide for how they can maximize their experience. We will share this with our blog readers in our Friday industry roundup!

  3. This is an outstanding article (and topic).
    The greatest challenge that many ex military people face is “translating” their service experience to commercially credible language. This is especially true with combat troops. And the hardest thing, in order to translate something into a language that’s new for you, yo need to find someone who speaks both languages.
    I worked with a former marine who was imbedded with Iraqi troops as an advisor. On his resume, he had written “advisor” and given a very good explanation of what he did there (in military terms). But he was facing those canned MBA interview questions and it was tough - believe it or not, they actually asked a decorated marine officer things like “like tell me about a time that you used leadership?”
    So we translated together…
    “Advisor” became “leading without formal line authority” – a key skill that is required in matrix organizations with cross-functional teams. He also learned how to answer behavioral questions (tell me about a time that you …?) with examples from his experiences in combat. Now this wasn’t easy because his stories needed to be framed in civilian language, but things like taking over when an Iraqi commander was endangering his men became “maintaining that delicate balance between consensus building and taking charge”.
    On some level, it is unfortuante that the people who risk their lives for our freedom have to connect the dots for the people they serve, but more often than not, thats the case. I’ll often advise vets to look for people who “get the joke” but unless you’re talking to a fellow vet, that vcan be hard to find.
    Thanks again for the great article.

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