Many of you reading this know people telling you “transitioning out of the military into civilian life is hard” is an understatement of a lifetime. Droves of veterans come out of service broken and beat, suffering from everything from PTSD to TBI, sleep disorders to eating disorders, and wading through a cornucopia of prescription medication passed out by our pharmaceutical company controlled doctors. And if that wasn’t bad enough, now you have to compete with people on their own turf; the civilians. These people didn’t have the privilege of serving their nation, no fault to them, but they are ahead in a few ways; they are likely through at least their first pass at secondary education (college, trade school, etc.), they understand the system, and speak the native tongue.
It was hard for me, as it is for many, to get through this process. Right after I got out, I spent a few years as a mover, moving other people’s furniture from one side of town to the other 6 days a week. Everyone hates moving day, try doing it as your job. I actually really liked my coworkers, but they were all drug-addicts, illegal aliens, convicts, or a mixture of all three. All the while I had a college degree. What was I doing wrong? I had enough at one point and did what many separated guys do and went back overseas as a contractor. But that feels like moving backwards. You’re never home, living in shitty conditions, dealing with the scum of the earth. Many people focus on the pay of contracting but forget to account for what you pay for that life in family separation, physical deterioration, and quality of life. There had to be a better way, so I applied to business school which turned out to be a two-year training pipeline for operating in the civilian world. Now I work as the lead financial analyst for bank stress testing and capital management at one of the largest savings and loan institutions in the US.
I tell you this not to brag about my accolades, but to tell you I have been through what many of you either are going through now or will be soon. With the right attitude and focus on working toward a stated goal, the transition can be done. I wanted to share four important points I learned from my transition. While this is written from the perspective of transitioning to a corporate setting, these truths will apply to almost all civilian positions.
Tailor your resume. No, seriously.
First the housekeeping item about resumes. We have all heard this multiple times, but it doesn’t seem to be getting through. Between business school and now interviewing business school graduates for jobs in finance, I have reviewed a few hundred resumes. Some of those resumes were veterans and most of those veteran resumes were good. But I also saw some stuff that turned me off from candidates who could understand what was going on. I imagine this stuff would send a civilian employer running. Here are a few pointers.
Don’t put your weapons qualifications, school qualifications, or list of medals on your resume. This happens way more than it really should. If you are applying to a job in marketing or finance, do you think your M-240B qualification or your marksmanship ribbon for rifle have any relevance to the job? What about your National Defense Medal? I know this sounds ridiculous but I have literally seen these items on Graduate level candidate resumes. Not only does this scare civilian employers away, it also tells the reviewer you don’t have enough experience to fill one sheet of paper with relevant qualifications.
Keep the jargon out of the resume. When you’re in the military you essentially have your own language. It is perfectly acceptable to switch out jargon for civilian speak. Change platoon sergeant to manager or supervisor. Change subordinates to employees. Change squad to team. You get the idea. This is going to help the reviewer connect your resume to the job you seek. Remember, you won’t be there to explain your resume when the first round of reviewers sees it. And this is the most important part of the hiring process because this is when they decide to invite people for an interview. If they can’t decipher your resume, they will pass.
Don’t separate every single job you have ever had in the military on your resume. Military life is fast paced when it comes to transitioning from one hat to another. You may be the interim armorer for a month and then the next month you go TDY to a school where you were team leader, then you come back from your TDY and become the NCO in charge of training, and then…..etc….etc. I have seen resumes that had every job, official or not, put in chronological order down the page as if the person was getting promoted every couple months. As a veteran, I understood what was going on, although I thought it was odd to put on a resume. A civilian will likely think you can’t keep a job more than a couple months. If you have a career that was extremely active and you want to highlight these items, these should be bullet points under an umbrella term of service. At most, separate major job changes and changes in duty station.
No one knows the difference between you and John
This one will be hard for a lot of people. You may have a stellar military resume; all the schools, all the AOs, and all the medals. But one hard pill you will have to swallow is most people on the civilian side simply can’t differentiate between services and military jobs. If you go to an interview and you were SOF or garner the title of “sniper” you may get a “that’s cool” and then a question about some movie they saw, but you are only marginally different than John, their accountant, who served as a supply sergeant in the Army National Guard in the mid-80s (not that there is anything wrong with that). Put differently, John is the same as a SOF member or sniper in their eyes. This is just the reality of the “life on the outside.”
Now you have to ask yourself should this even matter. Yes, you performed great accomplishments in your career that you should be very proud of, but you’re not applying for that job anymore. You are telling a potential future employer about the old you and explaining how you would like to use relevant skills from your past career and apply them to a new career. You have to leave a lot behind and let a lot go, because it just isn’t relevant anymore.
Additionally, realize your circumstances were a lot different than John’s were in the mid-80s. I imagine most reading this are part of the GWOT generation. What a great opportunity that was bestowed upon us to be part of such a big part of American history (some may disagree with that statement, and that’s okay: freedom win!). You are going to work with and be lumped in with a lot of other veterans that are simply different than you and had a different version of service than you. Embrace that and don’t turn them away. The veteran community these days has a cancer within it where every other type of veteran is shit and only your brand of service was worth a damn. I would advise you to try not to fall into this trap, as it will make your transition even harder. And civilian managers can definitely see this conflict manifest but won’t understand it. It will only come off as you being an asshole.
This might be your hardest job yet, believe it or not
One thought I had while transitioning was how easy life was going to be with a “normal” job. Just go in around 8 or 9 in the morning, hang out for a few hours, make some low stress decisions, and leave everyday to go home. Sounds remarkably easy compared to operations tempo when you are in country. This should be a walk in the park, right?
One thing you have to realize is you’re on a different planet now. The laws of military life no longer apply and the simplest, sometimes meaningless, tasks are the hardest. You are about to have items on your radar you didn’t even know existed prior to your transition. And the worst part is you will no longer have the decisive direction of your superiors. What was once “we are rolling out the gate at 2300, so mount the guns and get your PCCs done right now,” is now, “we have a meeting at 11am tomorrow, and we may want to present your findings, so if you have time can you assemble something for us?” Do they want to present my findings or not? If I have time? One of the hardest things I deal with outside the veteran community is getting people to be direct, say what they mean, and mean what they say. One thing you will learn from your experience is no matter how hard the task, if you have solid direction you will get it done. It is not so cut and dry on the outside and it definitely makes it a harder job than military operations in some aspects.
The other issue here is running operations in the military was fun, no matter how miserable you remember it being. You were literally doing something with your peers that involved hard work and cooperation. Transitioning to civilian life may consist of you staring at an excel spreadsheet for hours on end or discussing font styles with a peer before a big presentation. I don’t tell you this to shy you away from getting that sweet civilian gig (cause it is sweet), but to warn you that you may have to find other outlets to scratch the itch you didn’t realize you had until after you got out (insert #DieLiving here).
You might not be qualified, but that’s okay
You have your resume dialed in and you are going in for an interview. Another hard pill you have to swallow now is the likelihood you are not qualified for the position. Even if it is a comparable job to your service MOS, it may be wildly different. And if you’re going for a completely different track, like finance as I did, there may not be a military job in the world that translates to that career. I am here to tell you that is perfectly okay. While earlier I talked about how you have to leave a lot behind as it no longer applies, there are a few tools you gained during your service that will more than make up for lack of qualification; adaptability, resilience, professionalism, and confidence to name a few. You need to get these items to show on your resume to get the interview and then show these qualities in your interview to get the job.
As someone who makes decisions on hiring candidates for corporate finance positions, I will take an adaptable professional with confidence over a well-qualified individual who lacks these traits seen in so many veterans. I know that I can teach the resilient and adaptable professional finance, but I can’t teach the candidate with the MS in Finance how to be adaptable. And this is where you are going to set yourself apart and make your money. Remember, being on time and sober is mission one, but fortune favors the bold.
Steve Pedersen is a former Air Force NCO and WPS contractor whose passion is physical fitness and veteran advocacy. He currently resides in San Antonio, TX where he now works in banking and finance.