Making the switch from the military to a civilian career can be challenging.
Do the skills you honed in the military have value in the mainstream workforce? Should you choose a career that looks like the one you had in service, or venture into a brand new field?
John Hayes, associate director of Specialized Services at Capella University, offers four steps and a few tips for a successful transition. He’s also a veteran of military intelligence in the U.S. Air Force, so he knows first-hand about moving into the civilian work world.
Step 1: Ask yourself, what’s my dream career?
Maybe you loved your job in the military and hope to find the closest civilian equivalent. Or perhaps you’d like to try something new. Either way, the first step in your transition is to ask yourself, “What’s my dream career?”
If you’re not sure what you want to do, it’s time for some exploration and research. Talk to a career counselor at your state veterans affairs office or Department of Labor office. As a Capella student, you can also connect with the Career Center.
As you consider your options, keep these questions in mind: What am I really good at? What kind of job would make me feel excited to go to work every day? What do I want to achieve for myself and for my family?
Step 2: Assess your skills and experience.
At first glance, the skills and experience you gained in the armed forces may not seem to translate to your target career field. But take a closer look, and you may discover that many of them can be strong assets to highlight for prospective employers.
Do this exercise: Write out a list of all of your military duties. Now, translate each of these into its value in the civilian job market. For example, let’s say you worked as a munitions specialist loading missiles on to planes. How might you interpret your responsibilities in this role for a civilian job search? You might say:
- Handled sensitive information and equipment
- Ensured protocol compliance while supervising a team of 12 people
- Developed complex schedule for 24-hour operations
Need help translating your skills? Use this military occupation translation tool.
As you take stock of your marketable skills, don’t forget:
- Your inherent strengths (leadership, attention to detail, follow through)
- Volunteer experience, and
- Civilian jobs you may have held over the years
Don’t sell yourself short! There’s a high rate of underemployment among veterans transitioning to a civilian career as many accept positions that are beneath their level of skill and experience. You deserve a position (and the pay) that matches your level of experience. So be sure to take stock of your experience and expertise, and showcase these on your resume.
Step 3: Fill in the knowledge gaps.
You’ve figured out which industry you’d like to enter, and perhaps even targeted a specific career. And you’ve inventoried your skills to see which are marketable. Now, it’s time to figure out if there are any holes in your knowledge that you need to fill. If there are gaps, consider advancing your education.
Step 4: Build your network.
If you don’t already belong to a professional organization in the industry you’re targeting, join one now. Attend local events and get to know people who are working in your chosen field. Do you have any military buddies working in the industry you’re exploring? Get in touch, and let them know you’re looking to break into the field. Call the organizations that you’re interested in and ask if they have a veterans employee network.
Finally, a couple of valuable resume and interview tips.
Speak the language of the industry that you’re entering.
Study job descriptions in your chosen field to learn the skills and qualities that organizations are looking for. Can you align any of your military tasks with the skills and qualities listed in the job description? When possible, mirror the language that your prospective employer is using in your resume and cover letter.
Avoid military terminology.
Words that express war and violence can have strong negative connotations in the civilian workplace. So when describing your experience on a resume or in a job interview, choose neutral language. For example, instead of “missiles,” you could say “payload” or “materials.” And avoid other insider military-speak that may be unclear to a civilian employer.
Need help with your job interview skills? Check out the Capella Career Center’s tips on informational interviewing.