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Tips for a successful military transition and career change. 


Tips for a successful military transition and career change.  Tips for a successful military transition and career change. 

Key Takeaways

  • Transitioning veterans should carefully curate their resumes, application materials, and job applications to match the requirements of the position they are applying for.
  • Reaching out to recruiters can help veterans build strong connections in new fields and access new opportunities.
  • Focusing on highlighting relevant skills for desired positions while applying and interviewing in easy to understand corporate terms, not military.
  • Practicing with a mentor and collaborating with recruiters will help set veterans up for success when searching for a job.

Listen: Tips for a successful military transition and career change. 

Leaving the military and transitioning to civilian life is incredibly challenging. It was a major adjustment when I switched from being an Engineer Officer to a Content and Editorial Strategist. It's a significant change that can feel overwhelming. Plus, the transition classes the military requires did not provide the support I needed. Which made the process even more daunting.

When I began my job search, I realized that not everyone automatically values veterans, and employers may have misconceptions about our abilities. I experienced this firsthand when I applied to over 600 positions. While my military experience was appreciated, there were damaging stereotypes that held me back. People assumed I couldn't adapt to a rapidly changing environment, which was completely contradictory to the qualities I knew my military experience required. It became clear to me why veterans were designated as a protected class, and it had little to do with the government's gratitude for our service. 

Throughout the process, I began to learn how to translate my experience and skills and communicate the value I bring to the table as a veteran. Once I joined Aquent, I was able to see behind the scenes of the recruitment process and gather candid feedback from industry recruiters working with hundreds of different employers. After a year at my dream job, I decided it was time to compile the knowledge I gained and share it with other veterans considering a similar career change.

1. Carefully curate your resume and the positions you apply for

So, what exactly does “curate” mean? It's time to really think about what you want to do and what kind of company culture you want to work for. I know it's tough because it's a completely new landscape, and let's face it, you need a job as soon as possible. Unlike civilians, who can find a new job before leaving their current one, you have a deadline.

Curating means carefully selecting and organizing your skills, experiences, and accomplishments to showcase yourself in the best possible way to potential employers. This entails selecting and crafting your resume, portfolio (if needed), and cover letter to fit the requirements outlined in the job description precisely. By curating your application materials, you can highlight your most relevant qualifications, achievements, and experiences that make you a perfect fit for the position.

You'll have a better chance of success if you customize your resume for a specific set of jobs rather than blindly applying to countless positions. Sure, LinkedIn's Easy Apply feature may make it tempting to apply everywhere, but I encourage you to resist that urge.

Instead, consider creating three or four different versions of your resume, customized for specific job types. This is especially important since you'll need to translate your experience into the “civilian world,” which requires extra effort and customization.

2. Connect with recruiters

An open door on a wall of closed doors, symbolizing to look for the right people and place

Don't judge recruiters by your experience in the military. Civilian recruiters and military recruiters are very different. In the military, recruiters are under tremendous pressure to meet quotas and fill jobs in fields they have no experience with. On the other hand, civilian recruiters typically specialize in certain types of jobs or industries and are incentivized to match the right person to the right job.

There are two main types of recruiters in the civilian sector. Corporate recruiters (also known as talent acquisition specialists or internal recruiters) are employed by a company's HR or People Department to recruit exclusively for open positions in that organization. Staffing company recruiters work on behalf of a recruiting firm or staffing agency to match talent to open positions at many different client companies. Keep in mind that staffing companies charge their clients for their recruiting services—job seekers never pay to work with staffing company recruiters, or any recruiter for that matter.

Recruiters can make a huge difference in getting you started on the right foot. They're on the lookout for candidates who are a perfect match for their clients, so it's in their best interest to have a wide range of talented individuals to choose from. A good recruiter can also give you advice on your resume and portfolio and prep you for interviews with hiring managers. They genuinely want to help you succeed because it's a win for both of you when you land a job. And here's the bonus: recruiters are actively seeking to diversify their talent pool, including veterans like you.

So, how do you find recruiters and get in touch with them? Identify a company or position you like, click on the listing, and find the recruiter listed. Then, message them on LinkedIn. Prior to proceeding, make sure your LinkedIn profile is current and translated using clear, pertinent language, and be ready with a resume and a list of qualifications appropriate for that role. To make your efforts go even further, reach out to staffing company recruiters who specialize in the jobs you're interested in, since they are looking to fill many positions at different client companies.

Recruiters are busy; message them why you like the position and company and what skills you have that would make you a good fit, and attach your resume. 

Don't be discouraged if you aren't the right fit for that position, that's not the point. After reaching out to the recruiter, let them know what skills and experience you have and what you are looking for so they can add you to their candidate pool and keep you in mind for potential future roles. When they post positions for the future, you also have a connection to someone. 

Now, do that ten times. Even if you don't find an active position, you can still reach out to industry recruiters and establish a connection. This is time well invested and will only pay off if you put in the work. Use your learned skills and tenacity to get it done.

3. Translate your experience

This may be the toughest part, but it's also when it finally clicked for me. When you're in the military, your whole life revolves around it—your job, friends, housing, free time—everything is centered around the military. It can be challenging to explain to others that you didn't just set up an operations center; you did it in the middle of a desert while bullets were flying. But most people won't understand, and it can lead to more questions about what things mean, than what you know. 

What really matters is how your skills and experiences directly apply to the position you're applying for. Focus on the details and requirements of the job, rather than the environment or your overall military experience. That's not to say you can't highlight your ability to work under pressure and adapt to changing circumstances—you definitely should. Just avoid making grand claims like being able to accomplish any mission, regardless of the environment, or operating for 48 hours straight without sleep.

Imagine this scenario: You're asked in an interview, “Can you provide me with an example of a time when you had to overcome an obstacle at work?” 

Now, let's look at two answers, one from a military perspective and one that translates your experience to the corporate world. Both instances highlight the ability to adapt and overcome challenges from the same experience, one that really happened to me. 

Military life: “One occasion, we were heading to the field for a two-week FTX, and the execution was quickly becoming a mess. Well, unfortunately, some of the guys partied too hard at the barracks the night before. That led to one of my drivers coming into work drunk. Command got involved, and we had to call the MPs for a breathalyzer. Now, down a driver, we had to shift our entire loadout plan and slide two Joes to our sister platoon. We were able to adapt to changing circumstances and execute the convoy quickly, but we left at 1000 instead of 0500, and I learned the importance of having a good PACE plan.”

Corporate translation: “I was leading a team of 30 people, and our big task was to relocate to a new office. We had to move all our stuff, worth more than $500,000, and make sure everyone got there safely. It was all going well until one of our drivers was unable to be there. Talk about a major setback!

I reacted quickly and came up with a new plan. I reached out to another department in the company and asked for their help in getting some of our supplies and team members to the new location. It wasn't easy, but we managed to coordinate everything and get back on track.

We ended up being five hours behind schedule, but we made it. We arrived at our new workplace with all our supplies intact and ready to set up shop. It was a valuable lesson, highlighting the importance of cross-training team members and collaborating with different departments. Now, I know how to handle unexpected challenges and keep things running smoothly.” 

See the difference? The first one is more intense, overshares, and leads to a series of questions about what different lingo means. In the end, the interviewer is confused and certainly doesn't get the skills from the story. 

The second one, on the other hand, focuses on how my skills and experience from the military would directly apply in the corporate world.

You got this

Thumbs up, symbolizing you've got this

Feeling overwhelmed? Don't worry, you've conquered tougher things before and come out on top. If there's one thing you should take away from all of this, it's that you should ask for help. Seek out someone who works in the field you want to transition into (ideally a civilian) and have them review your resume. Do they understand it? Practice some interview questions with them. Are you effectively showcasing the necessary skills for the job? Collaborate with a recruiter to identify any skills you need to work on to qualify for your dream job.

The best part? Even if you don't land your ideal job right away, that's totally okay. Use this time to build your skills and keep searching for the perfect opportunity. Unlike in the past, you now have the freedom to leave a job or company whenever you are ready to move on. 

I wish you the best of luck and happy job hunting!

Image of Elizabeth Toenyes
Elizabeth Toenyes

Elizabeth is a skilled communication, marketing, and storytelling professional with expertise in blogs, video production, press releases, crisis management, and senior leadership advisory. As a former member of the US Army, Elizabeth thrives in fast-paced environments and is committed to driving tangible positive change. In her role as Aquent's Content and Editorial Strategist, she leads and oversees the development of unique, insights-driven content across various formats.


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