Smart Military Transition Strategies

Leaving the military, whether you have a few years of service or many, is a big undertaking.

Too often I talk with those who wait until the last minute or those who have had significant trouble in transitioning.

As with any major “battle,” doing your research and developing an action plan, preferably well in advance, can ensure a smarter and more successful transition.

5 Steps to Successful Military-to-Civilian Career Transition

This outline, below, can be supplemented by a wide variety of detailed information on each step both within this Veterans Job Search Guide and across the entire Job-Hunt website.

  Step 1: Recognize the Big Step Is Mental  

Military service surrounds one from the beginning. You learn a new language as well as skills. You spend much, if not most, of your time with other service members. You live, travel, eat, and work in military environments.

These become like air — we only recognize the air we breathe when something about it changes significantly. You act and think and expect things in certain ways that you no longer notice.

For many military people, the biggest step is not only to realize the huge changes they are facing but also to give up their current identity.

Your rank is visible to all. Other military know where you have served and something about your work at first glance. You have invested in your beliefs about military service. You are part of a tribe. Some military members have developed an entitlement mentality as well.

Now, you are going to move into a larger society that does not generally understand your experiences. Some civilians may carry expectations about it themselves. Even veterans from different services or eras will carry different expectations than you do.

The language of work, the way careers are built, the way our daily lives move are all different in the military.

The elements of every day, from medical care to child care to driver’s licenses, change as you transition to the civilian world. None of these differences are better or worse necessarily, but they do require adjustment.

Consider Are you really prepared for these changes? Have you been assessing their impact on you?

  Step 2. Think About Your Future Life and Career Before Starting Your Job Search  

Start your transition, assessing where you want to go with your life, in the short-term (the next 18-24 months) and at least five years after your transition. Read Choosing Your Civilian Career and Military Transition Action Plan for a process that works to help you identify your best direction.

Defining your goals and your most important values will help you assess your options.

If you have a family, what impact will that have on your planning?

Thinking in detail about your needs and options early in the process is vital to success.

Too many military start their job search with a “I can do anything” or “I can do 4-6 different things” and wonder why employers ignore them.

Employers expect you to know what you want to do and to demonstrate how your past supports that.

Make your career choice:

  • Stay in the same arena as your military experience.
  • Ready for a new field.

Either way, as you focus on possible careers, you need to do some research. The Federal government offers a wide range of career exploration resources at CareerOneStop. Many other resources also exist.

Among your considerations should be:

  • What are the skill and knowledge requirements for the career?
  • What skills, interests, knowledge do you already have for that career?
  • What is the future of the career?
  • What education or training do you need for it?
  • Where are the best opportunities in it located geographically?

“Should I get a degree” or an advanced degree is a common question in transition. If you do not have a bachelor’s degree, you need to assess whether you need additional college education, a technical or trade school, an apprenticeship, or what.

Learn if a degree is needed for supervisory positions even if it is not for entry level ones. Depending on your goals, it may be wisest to make an effort to finish any needed degree as fast as possible – starting now!

If you have a BS/BA, often it is wiser to get a job first. Then, pay attention to which, if any, advanced degrees and schools are really valued in your career field.

If you know your desired field demands a specific advanced degree for entry or you are changing career focus, look at degrees and schools very carefully. You want a school with a good reputation in the field, where you can do research or get internships and find alumni to help you move into jobs you want.

As you narrow your interests to one-two potential career fields, talk to people in those areas to learn more about the field.

  Step 3. Create a Master Resume  

A master resume defines every job you have ever had, what it was, what organization it was in, and what you actually did. Recording supervisors’ names and contact info helps, too, for your records and job search necessities like references and recommendations.

  • Start with any work you did in high school or college and keep going until your entire work life is included.
  • For military experience, use old reviews and any other records you have.
  • Add in those “additional duties” and other work you did outside your basic assignments.
  • List all of your training.
  • Include your (unclassified) accomplishments – teams you led, groups you managed, requirements you met or exceeded, budgets and/or complex assets you successfully managed, and so on.

As you learn more about the work you want and its requirements, expand the achievements you have in your military career into bullet points that are relevant, and use the terms (“keywords“) expected by employers.

Maintaining a master resume over your career makes every job search easier. It also may help you demonstrate why you are promotable within your future employers.

Use this resume as the foundation document for the resumes you submit for specific opportunities. BUT, be sure to customize each resume to each opportunity, highlighting your relevant skills, experience, and accomplishments. Don’t submit your master resume for a job opportunity.

  Step 4. Develop Your Marketing Materials  

Today, every job search needs a good resume and social media profile(s), especially LinkedIn.

These materials serve to demonstrate that you have the skills and abilities to add value to an employer, to meet employers’ needs.

They are all forms of personal advertising which you need to do since you are selling yourself as a product.

Resumes are not biographies. They are personal marketing documents. Each should focus on showing how your past specifically supports your future (the job you are applying for).

If something is not relevant, omit it!

  • Don’t bother with long lists of generic skills or job descriptions.
  • Translate military job titles into civilian equivalents.
  • Omit awards and decorations and most training.

Those can all go on your LinkedIn or other social media profiles.

Make your resume enticing and easy to read. If you have less than 10 years of experience, a one-page version is smart.

If you have 10 years or more, go for two pages so that you can show a record of relevant achievements, growth in responsibilities, and the value you can add.

Do a basic online search using two or more search engines to see what already is out there about you. Check to see if others with the same name may be problematic as well. This is called “defensive Googling” and make it a monthly habit.

Then, be sure you create a record that employers see which makes them interested in you when they Google you (because they will Google you).

LinkedIn is usually the most effective weapon in your online personal reputation/marketing arsenal.

Create a good profile on a professional site like LinkedIn. Use a headshot that looks right for the work you want. Expand what is on your resume. Keep job titles and dates in sync with your resume.

If your field expects it, add a portfolio of your work to your LinkedIn profile or your own website or blog. Read Job-Hunt’s free LinkedIn Job Search Guide for strategies and details. Be wary of what you publish in Facebook.

Buy business cards for networking and job search activities. Use the back to highlight a few important aspects of your experience.

  Step 5. Make a Job Search Plan  

Put all the research into action:

  • Target 15-20 employers which interest you, and learn all you can about them. (Remember, a successful mission requires a defined target.)
  • Connect with people in your field at each employer using LinkedIn or a search engine, and ask a question or two telling each of your interest in the field and the employer.
  • If you still are interested, also connect with the company on LinkedIn, Facebook, and their website. Do the same with their veteran recruiters.
  • Make yourself known before you send in any resumes or job applications.

Network as much as possible:

  • Use your existing connections to make new ones.
  • Connect to people you see actively in your field.
  • Learn how to ask good questions and what you can offer in return.
  • Build your knowledge of the best companies, hiring managers, and of your career field.
  • Make following up a daily habit!

Read Fast Track to a New Job: An Employee Referral for details on how employee referral programs work and vary from employer to employer.

The Bottom Line

During this whole process, let yourself dream first. Then, back those dreams with an accurate self-assessment and facts about your desired career field and employers. Working your plan is the road to a successful transition! Be well prepared before you leap into the civilian job market.

More About Military to Civilian Transition

Patra FrameAbout the author…

Patra Frame has extensive experience in human capital management and career issues in large and small corporations. She is an Air Force vet and charter member of The Women In Military Service for America Memorial.  Patra speaks and writes regularly on job search and career issues through her company Strategies for Human Resources (SHRInsight) and where she blogs advice for veterans and other job seekers. Watch Patra’s job search tips videos on YouTube, and follow her on Twitter @2Patra.
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