For veterans looking for a civilian job can feel like traveling to a foreign country. That’s how different the language, culture and hierarchy can be when transitioning from the military to the private sector. But just as finding a good translator and researching the customs of your desired destination are stepping-stones to a great vacation, such moves can also be the foundation for writing a résumé that helps launch a new career.
With your résumé as a passport, you’ll be ready to take on new roles and responsibilities as you pursue your goals. Here are some tips on how to write a résumé that highlights the skills you developed during military service — along with additional advice that can help veterans with their search for jobs.
AARP resources for veterans seeking jobs
AARP Job Board: Use the Veterans Wanted Jobs filter to search for employers who are actively seeking applicants with a military background.
AARP Resume Advisor: Get a free expert résumé review of how well your skills are communicated, and obtain personalized recommendations on how to make your résumé stand out. Discounted writing packages are also available to rewrite your résumé, cover letter or LinkedIn profile.
AARP Veterans Page: Stay up to date with the latest news and information impacting older veterans.
1. Demilitarize the language. List your title and rank in your résumé, of course, but provide some basic information about what that position means without resorting to jargon. Assume recruiters aren’t veterans, so avoid military terms and acronyms they won’t understand. Identify the job titles private sector firms use to cover the duties you performed in the military. Luckily, there are numerous sources of “translation” services to help.
2. Focus on skills. Describe the skills gained from your role in the military, not just the assigned responsibilities. For example, a member of the infantry who patrolled a base and engaged in combat must demonstrate how that experience is relevant to a nonmilitary environment. “Don’t say you patrolled. Say you created a safe working environment for 300 people,” said Terry Howell, senior director of strategic alliances at Military.com, a website loaded with information about how veterans can find jobs. “Don’t say you shot at people. Talk about working under pressure and constantly assessing situations,” said Howell, who served in the Coast Guard for 20 years.
3. Brag a little. Boast about your individual accomplishments. Bragging isn’t encouraged in the team-focused military. And while civilian companies definitely value individuals who work productively with others, employers are considering whether they should hire you. Emphasize your specific contributions to the team’s success.
4. Keep it short. Limit your résumé to two pages or less. Many civilians don’t understand how the military operates (and may even have negative stereotypes about veterans). But your résumé is not the place to provide a detailed explanation of military practices and procedures. Stick to your experience, check the document for spelling and grammar, and tailor each résumé to the specific position you are seeking.
5. Use all your options. Your status as a veteran gives you access to special help with the job-hunt. Every branch of the military provides its members with transition training. The Department of Veterans Affairs and the Labor Department also offer tools to ease the road to a civilian career, as do many private employers. Some ex-military members don’t consider themselves veterans if they didn’t see combat so they harbor misgivings about taking advantage of these services, according to Brian Kropp, HR practice leader at Gartner, who works on strategies to recruit veterans. He encourages veterans to use every program at their disposal. Identifying firms that are actively recruiting veterans and reaching out directly to those in charge of these efforts is a great way to find a job, even though the idea might make some veterans uncomfortable, he noted. “For veterans that can be like breaking the chain of command,” he said. Military.com lists companies that want to hire veterans. Other sources are Veteran Jobs Mission and Hire Heroes USA.
6. Find a mentor. Look for another former member of the military who already has made the switch to the career that interests you. That person can help guide you through the process and discuss successful strategies for making the change.
7. Speak freely. Be aware that communications in the civilian world are more relaxed than they are in the military, said Carol Pugh, a professor at Grantham University who served in the army for seven years. About half the students at the school are ex-military, and she runs a program to teach corporations about the benefits of hiring veterans. She said that during interviews, veterans should feel free to ask questions and highlight their achievements.
8. Plan ahead. Don’t wait until your discharge to think about your next move. Explore the many educational opportunities the military offers its members. Consider taking classes, especially if you want to pursue a career that requires a different skill set than the one developed in your military role. Volunteering for organizations that are related to your next career goal is another way to prepare for the transition.
Editor’s note: This article, originally published Nov. 2, 2017, has been updated with the latest job resources available from AARP.