Transitioning from Military to Civilian Employment

by Peter Newfield, President, Career Resumes

Military personnel can offer a great deal of experience and dedication to prospective commercial employers. Yet their capabilities are often discounted if they adhere to a formal military-style resume. With some analysis and innovation, individuals making the transition from military to civilian careers can effectively position themselves as the well-qualified, capable candidates they are. From the written materials to the first telephone contact, and finally through the stages of the interview, military applicants need to almost “re-invent” themselves to be competitive in the market they have selected.

Why do recruiters or hiring managers overlook well-qualified military applicants? First, they may not be able to establish (or understand) a matched skills set from the military resume, perhaps because the language and buzz words do not equate. If the recruiter is forced to decipher too much technical information or military jargon, he or she may be unable to see the qualifications they are looking for. Second, recruiters may be distracted by the military resume format. Military resumes tend to be long and do not consolidate background and experience as it relates to the open position.

Assessment of Strengths

The first step for the transitioning applicant is to understand his or her talents, skills, and abilities and how those attributes relate to business and industry. Military personnel develop traits beneficial to commercial enterprises because they are held to high standards of performance and operations. Recruiting professionals polled agreed that military personnel make excellent leaders, once given a specific task: they are decisive, resourceful, and tremendous team players; and they perform well under pressure.

In the military, an individual who has demonstrated outstanding leadership qualities is targeted for intense training and development. The individual may be assigned to managing a troop, then to human resources, and then to a position responsible for policy-making and strategic planning. The intent is to develop a top-notch trained officer who can function in a large structured organization. Because of the size, structure, and nature of doing business in the military, this individual has great potential for success in operations management in almost any industry. And depending on his/her length of service, the applicant could immediately transition into first-line supervision or senior-level management. The challenge is correlating the different assignments to private sector roles, including financial planning and analysis, operations management, purchasing, human resource management, systems administration, and administrative support.

Creating the “Civilian” Resume

As with any other specialized field, military applicants need not only to prepare their resume and cover letter in lay terms, but also to strategize how they will “fit” and “market” themselves throughout the process. The military resume should stay away from the textbook traditional format and style. The last thing the applicant wants the recruiter focusing on is military rank or title. The focus should be on the professional capabilities the applicant will bring to the company.

Therefore, in most cases, military experience is best handled in a modified functional resume, because it highlights capabilities in professional categories as opposed to chronological achievements by job title or rank. This resume has an objective right up front that explains the applicant’s skills and experience, as well as other outstanding areas of expertise. Then, statements following the objective should categorize the experience in particular commercial areas, such as “Management Expertise,” “Operations Expertise,” “Human Resources Expertise.” This format allows the writer to tie together the pieces of his experience into a complete story that comes across clearly and immediately. In this way, seemingly fragmented assignments are read as parts of one position, with “progressively more duties and responsibilities” along the way.

Readers should be immediately impressed with how different the presentation looks from military resumes they’ve read in the past and should soon forget they are reading a military resume altogether. The applicant should use the language and industry terms specific to the chosen industry and profession. It is not necessary to repeat the military information at the closing of the resume, if it is the primary source of employment and therefore already noted in the dates and headings that come before.

Creative Cover Letter

The cover letter can carry a one-liner about the honorable discharge but should not repeat what has already been stated in the resume. It should be used to answer the question all recruiters ask: “Why should I call this individual, and how can he or she benefit our company?” The cover letter gives the military writer the opportunity to show his “non-military” side, to dispel the reader’s pre-conceived ideas of a military candidate, and to distinguish him- or herself as a industry-savvy candidate who is upbeat, personable, and ready for the new challenge.

Peter Newfield is President of Career Resumes, a leading resume writing service that provides cover letters, professional resumes, and Internet posting in all fields and industries. Career Resumes is a member of both the National Resume Writers’ Association, Career Masters Institue and the Professional Association of Resume Writers. In addition, he is the former Resume Expert for and the Career Center on AOL. For a free consultation and resume evaluation with a price quote, call 1-800-800-1220 or fax resumes to 1-914-232-8165
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