Moving From the Military Into a Civilian Job
Switching from a military to a civilian career is a big step. It also can be extremely difficult. Military officers may be highly qualified for many business positions. However, their backgrounds are so different from those of typical executives that employers often can’t tell if — and where — they’d fit.
To start with, military occupational specialties are categorized differently than civilian occupations. A military officer may have extensive experience managing and motivating large groups of employees, handling complicated logistical maneuvers and developing and executing plans and strategies — all typical executive roles. However, the military would most likely describe the officer’s expertise in terms of a military specialty, say, nuclear, biological and chemical warfare, which doesn’t interest most civilian companies.
For this reason, most military officers who seek corporate roles can’t submit traditional resumes listing their military positions in chronological order. Instead, they must create functional resumes describing their accomplishments as managers, supervisors and administrators.
There are approximately 8,500 military occupational specialties and some 40,000 civilian sector occupational codes and titles. With thousands of military professionals leaving the services annually, somehow the two must meet.
If you’re retiring after 20 years in the military or leaving earlier, you may feel confused by the civilian job market and worried that you’ll never find a position that suits you. The following tips can help you make the transition:
1. Think differently
Converting from a military to a civilian career involves several steps, but the first is starting to think of yourself as a civilian. Many retiring servicemen and women aren’t ready to make this mental shift at first. For instance, when an officer prepares to leave active duty, he or she might call a private career counseling service for assistance. The conversation might go like this:
Military: ”Hi, my name is Major Jones. I’m retiring from military service and interested in having a resume prepared.”
Counselor: “Yes, Mr. Jones. l can assist you. I have an opening next Tuesday at 1 p.m.
Military: “OK, I’ll see you at 1300 Tuesday next.”
Counselor: “Yes, I’ll expect you at 1 p.m. on Tuesday. Please bring your performance evaluations and other documentation.”
The recruiter isn’t being argumentative. Rather, she’s helping the officer begin to shed his military rank and approach job hunting as a civilian. This is just the beginning. As Major Jones becomes Mr. Jones, he needs to translate his entire career from military terminology to civilian equivalents.
2. Change your perception of what’s important
Military personnel usually are more comfortable using the service jargon, titles and acronyms they’ve been taught throughout their careers than civilian terms. But if you use these terms on your resume or during interviews, you’ll leave recruiters and hiring managers bewildered. This is especially true if a recruiter is young or hasn’t had experience with the military.
“What’s perceived as positive in the military isn’t always positive in an interview,” says Curtis Bragg, executive vice president of Hire Quality Inc., a Chicago placement service for former military from all branches and ranks.
With their “yes ma’ams” and “no sirs,” military officers often need coaching to present themselves effectively and avoid being stereotyped as too rigid, inflexible or polite, says Mr. Bragg.
“We help package (veterans) to the business community,” he says. “We’re able to be candid and tell military personnel that they’re being overly polite in interviews or that listing their awards on a resume isn’t useful.”
3. Capitalize on your military experience
Most ex-military are highly qualified, skilled, trained, educated and disciplined. They’re accustomed to working in highly stressful and pressured situations. Moreover, officers hold security clearances which are transferable to defense contractors for up to 18 months after retirement. This is a desirable qualification and may be an essential screening requirement for Department of Defense contractors.
Nevertheless, business executives often must be educated about the untapped benefit of hiring service members, says Mr. Bragg.
“The civilian workforce doesn’t always understand military people and they must overcome potentially very important perceptions,” says retired Marine Col. Buzz Buse, director of The Officer Placement Service (OPS) for the Retired Officer’s Association (ROA).
One military stereotype is that officers shout orders, are inflexible, overqualified or intimidating and lack essential business know-how such as profit-and-loss experience, says Mr. Buse. The truth is that many former military have highly transferable financial and management skills, he says. They also may have been responsible for so many personnel and such large sums — often billions of dollars — that civilian employers become overwhelmed.
Military officers often use a consensus approach to decision-making, says Mr. Buse. “They tackle a problem by placing it on the table and discussing it until there’s a recommendation,” he says. “The civilian employer only sees the salute.”
OPS provides members with counseling to help them transition to the civilian world. This includes guidance and training on marketing themselves to employers; resume editing; access to a world-wide network of ROA members who can assist job hunters; a Web site (www.troa.org) that publishes a jobs bulletin for registered members; and placement assistance. OPS also offers free seminars to military and family members at bases world-wide on “Marketing Yourself for a Second Career.” Membership in ROA is open to active duty, honorably discharged and retired officers.
4. Plan your exit
Don’t wait until the last minute to decide on such essential factors as where you’ll live and what you want to do. Ideally, you should begin preparing for civilian employment at least 12 to 18 months before separation.
“Begin thinking about transition well in advance of when you need too. The sooner you think about it, the better you’ll know your career path,” Mr. Bragg says.
Include family members when developing a plan for your transition, says Mr. Buse. “Try to do something that makes you happy” after the military, he says. When preparing your plan, list your skills, accomplishments and values and how you expect to make new contacts in the civilian world.
5. Write a solid resume
Preparing a resume that effectively translates your military experience for civilian employers is a challenging assignment. Your military occupational specialty is just one aspect of your career. Most likely, you’ve been trained in a variety of disciplines, including personnel management, budgeting, logistics, teaching and logistics management. A “functional” resume that describes your accomplishments in terms of major functions you handled may be the best way to impart your abilities.
Many resumes that ROA edits need this kind of orientation, says Mr. Buse. Certain terms are translated easily: Change “commanded” to “supervised” or “directed” and “Lt. Colonel” to “CEO” or “Executive Officer.”
Mr. Buse recommends that officers who held positions involving a command use phrases such as “Led an organization with x number of personnel resulting in a x% turnaround,” on their resumes.
“One short quantitative statement can [describe] years of commanding,” he says. In addition, remove military terms. Change “battalions and regiments to skills and talents in functional areas and leadership backgrounds,” he adds.
Functional resumes can portray a well-rounded career history and areas of strong expertise. Tailor your document to the needs of the hiring company and the available position. Focus on your specialized knowledge and what you can offer. This can help you narrow the scope of your resume.
You’ll need at least two resumes, a more general document to use when networking for leads and one that’s specific to each job you apply for. Some former servicemen and women need additional versions to describe various skill areas.
After sending out resumes for six months, Navy Capt. Patricia Tackitt, a registered nurse, created two documents, one with no military references and the other with a military focus, including acronyms and jargon. Although her search was still tough, she’s now assistant director for the Defense and Veterans Head Injury Program in Washington, D.C.
John Morton, an Army senior noncommissioned officer, also struggled for six months before seeking help with his resume. He received three job offers in 30 days after preparing a version with a civilian focus. He’s now a supervisor with a major defense contractor in Germany.
Maj. Lester McGilvray developed two resumes package. One focused on health-care administration while the other was tailored to human-resources management. After a five-month job hunt, he received two good offers. He’s now based in Chicago as medical operations administrator for a six-state area for the Army Guard Reserves.