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Four Ways a Veteran Can Ace a Civilian Job Interview

How to get an employer to see the best in you

spinner image a person is sitting on a chair waiting for a job interview
Illustration: Paul Spella (Source: Getty Images (2))

In my experience as a corporate recruiter, veterans soared through interviews when they successfully articulated their roles, skills and experiences in layperson’s terms.

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You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published every two weeks. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

Whether a civilian job interview is conducted in person or online, a veteran is well placed to shine.

According to a recent report, the current skills and labor shortage means that for most CEOs uncertainty has replaced optimism. Veterans are ideally positioned to demonstrate that they can be a sure thing.

Here’s how to demonstrate that your military skills and experiences are valuable and relevant to the civilian jobs you’re pursuing.

1. Crush the mechanics

If the interview is in person, double-check directions ahead of time and aim to arrive at least 15 minutes early with a clear head. If it’s a virtual interview, check the technology to ensure it works, and find a quiet space in your home.

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Dress for success. Wear a suit. If the environment is less formal and you wear something more casual, make sure your outfit is neatly pressed.

Look people in the eye, extend a firm handshake and always send a follow-up email to thank interviewers for their time and consideration.

Pro tip: Lean into your military experience with respect for people in charge, but don’t call them “sir” or “ma’am.” Be as focused as you were in the military.

2. Stress loyalty

A record 47.8 million Americans quit their jobs in 2021. The Great Resignation means employers are struggling to keep their workers. This gives veterans a huge advantage, because dedication is intrinsic to the military.

“Emphasize your loyalty and commitment to service,” Roy Cohen, career coach and author of The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide, tells AARP Veteran Report. “Managers are concerned that new employees will bolt and leave them with a mess or a gap to fill.”

Pro tip: What some might consider old-fashioned values are prized more than ever by employers.

3. Avoid military-speak

Civilian workplaces often operate in code through acronyms that only internal employees understand. Terminology for military jobs is similar as well.

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You can learn that new lingo once you’ve got the job. Don’t worry about it in the interview. But you do need to avoid terms only a service member would understand.

Pro tip: Think of this process as Google Translate for military jargon. Speak the employer’s language rather than the military language you’re accustomed to.

4. Control your narrative

Managers are often busy and overstretched. Dorie Clark, who teaches at Duke University and is the author of The Long Game: How to Be a Long-Term Thinker in a Short-Term World, tells AARP Veteran Report, “You have to control the narrative by painting the picture for them, and explaining precisely how your past experience taught you valuable lessons you can apply in your new position.”

If a veteran who worked in the supply chain in the military wants to do the same in a civilian context, that’s relatively simple. But if you’re transitioning from flying helicopters to marketing consumer packaged goods, you have to think creatively. “Others won’t take the time to envision possibilities for you — so you need to make sure you’re doing it for them,” says Clark. Veterans should also highlight “soft skills” like empathy and collaboration. The military might not emphasize these, but civilian employers do.

Pro tip: Don’t assume employers will immediately grasp how a military situation applies to their company. You’ll need to explain it to them.

Veterans have so much that civilian employers need. Make sure you showcase what you can offer.

Vicki Salemi is a nationally recognized career expert, author and speaker who writes a nationally syndicated column, Vicki on Careers, for Tribune. She previously worked in corporate HR and recruiting. Her work has appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Forbes, BBC.com, and dozens of other publications.

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published every two weeks. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

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