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Out of Uniform and Into the Job Market

8 steps toward a smooth transition to civilian employment

Military transition to civilian job

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En español | You’ve finished your term in the armed forces; you’re a civilian again. You’d think that employers would be tripping over themselves to hire you. After all, you served your country, you’re a team player, you probably received specialized training, you gained valuable life experience. Above all, you’ve got a record of “sticking with it.”

The reality, however, is that many employers are reluctant to hire you. Some fear you’ll be prone to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and suicide, or have other mental or physical illnesses that will compromise your ability to do the job.

Others mistakenly believe that as a veteran you’ll require closer supervision than other candidates, because you’re used to “following orders.” Moreover, employers may not understand how your experience and skills make you qualified for their current openings.

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“Few employers have many vets or understand anything about the military,” laments consultant Patra Frame, a U.S. Air Force veteran and founder of Strategies for Human Resources in Alexandria, Virginia. Her organization specializes in helping military people transition to civilian life.

Employers “do not know what to expect, what skills are common, what the difference is between enlisted and officers,” she explains. “You may need to do more to help prospective employers understand how your job skills, experience and character transfer to the position and meet the employer’s needs.”

So here are eight steps to help you make the jump from military service to the civilian 9 to 5.

1. Self-assess

Serving in the military for 20 years “means in most cases you have never written a résumé, attended a job interview or applied for a job,” says Diane Hudson, a career coach and résumé writer who specializes in training and coaching vets. (She’s also Job-Hunt’s expert for placing veterans.)

So start by making two lists. The first lays out the character attributes from your military experience that you’ll want to showcase in your job search. This list might include such things as “leadership,” “highly educated,” “healthy/fit,” “drug-free” and “Department of Defense clearance.”

Veteran Job Sites

As a veteran, you can take advantage of all job-search websites and apps. But there are quite a few sites devoted exclusively to helping veterans. Have a look at these:

Next, make a list of your specific skills, such as accounting, engineering, computer software maintenance, security, logistics and so forth. Poke around online to get an idea of how many of your skills are marketable. Sometimes a first job is with a company that does defense contracting. But other people go straight to the fully civilian world. Keeping accounts for a military unit, for instance, isn’t that different from keeping them for a DMV office.

Hudson cites the case of an infantryman who’d served in the Army for 23 years and retired at the rank of E-9/command sergeant major. “He felt he had no skills or direct value to offer corporate America,” recalls Hudson. “He said he operated tanks, weapons and dug ditches.”

Together they determined that he’d also directly supervised, trained and evaluated 40 personnel, supporting over 2,000 troops in four countries, with an inventory list of 1,500 line items and material assets valued at $65 million, including large vehicles. His areas of expertise included personnel management, logistics and operations.

The soldier later accepted a management position with a major retailer as a logistics expert. He had oversight supervisory responsibility for several hundred employees and multiple warehouses, says Hudson. “He doubled his salary and banked his military retirement pay.”

2. Translate your military credentials into “civilian speak”

Hudson says, “It is not just a job change but also a major culture change. Learn the civilian or corporate equivalent language for your military acronyms, jargon, ranks [and] service.”

Most industry professionals don’t know, for instance, that a Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) is an area of expertise. They may not grasp the difference between a captain in the Army (junior officer) and a captain in the Navy (senior officer).

Believe it or not, there are websites that can translate the language of your former world into things civilians can understand. These sites include O*Net Resources Center and Military to Federal Jobs Crosswalk. Your old role as a deputy commander, for example, might be rendered as equivalent to executive vice president, special projects for a large company.

Use this civilian language without fail on your résumé and your LinkedIn and other social media profiles. And, of course, in interviews.

3. Take advantage of government programs

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Transition Assistance Program should be your last stop in uniform. It offers a range of workshops that help you explore your skills and job interests, write a résumé and understand what civilian employers are looking for.

The department also offers a variety of other career and employment assistance programs with an assortment of online tools to help you manage your career trajectory.

Three optional workshops — Career Technical Training Track, Education Track and Entrepreneurship Track — are also available. Service members can elect to attend one, two or all three.

4. Seek out employers that hire veterans

Many companies have specific programs to take on people who have served. Often their official websites make this clear. These employers include AT&T, Bank of America, Boeing, Cisco Systems, Citibank, Comcast, CVS Caremark, Deloitte, General Electric, Google, Hewlett Packard, SAP, Walt Disney and Xerox. You can find more at the AARP Job Board. Check the filter for “Veterans Wanted Jobs” to find employers seeking applicants with military experience.

Federal agencies hire under the terms of a Veterans Preference program. This doesn’t, of course, guarantee you a job. Basically, it means that your military service will tip a job decision in your direction if you’re qualified and other factors with competing applicants are equal.

Other AARP Career Resources

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 Work Reimagined Guide for Veterans & Military Families: Download this guide to help you navigate the many free resources AARP offers to aid in your job search.

5. Find a mentor

The nonprofit American Corporate Partners (ACP) offers veterans tools for career growth through mentoring, career counseling and networking. Its mentoring program is open to all currently serving and recently separated veterans (including members of the Reserve and National Guard) who have served on active duty for at least 180 days since Sept. 11, 2001. Spouses of veterans killed on duty and spouses of severely wounded post-9/11 veterans also can take part.

Much of the advice is parlayed via an online bulletin board where human resources (HR) experts and seasoned professionals give advice in response to specific workplace and education questions posed by military vets of all stripes and ages. But ACP also pairs specific vets with corporate execs in more traditional mentor-protege relationships. Employees from such enterprises as Alcoa, Bloomberg, Fidelity, IBM, PNC and UPS now participate.

6. Start networking

Reconnect with past peers and bosses on LinkedIn and other social media sites.

Or look for military-focused groups. The Military Officers Association of America hosts military career fairs around the country and has a job board on its website as well as an interactive tool to help you prepare for interviews. It has a LinkedIn Career Networking group. The events and information are open to active-duty, retired, former and National Guard/Reserve service members of all ranks and their spouses, as well as government employees.

7. Skill up

You learned a lot in uniform, but you can always learn more. Myriad programs give former military people a leg up in that task. The Veteran Education Benefits User's Guide will lead you to education programs, scholarships and financial aid programs you may be eligible for.

8. Ace the interview

When you get called in for a meeting with a hiring manager, draw on your old military confidence. But be sure that your words are from the civilian world. Don’t worry about coming off as stiff. “Few military are as formal as many civilians expect, although the tendency to say sir and ma’am is hard to break,” says Frame with a laugh.

Tips for Veterans to Ace a Civilian Job Interview

Kerry Hannon, is a career transition expert and an award-winning author.  Her latest book is Getting the Job You Want After 50 for Dummies. She has also written Love Your Job: The New Rules for Career Happiness and Great Jobs for Everyone 50+: Finding Work That Keeps You Happy and Healthy…and Pays the Bills. Find more from Kerry at

Editor’s note: This article, originally published March 17, 2016, has been updated with additional resources.