Recruiters, well-meaning relatives and just about anyone who encouraged you to join the service probably did so in part by mentioning at some point that your time serving your country would eventually help you to jumpstart a new career. If you are retiring from the service, you might now be looking for ways to use that jumpstart you heard so much about. But after years of learning how to drive a tank or fire an artillery piece, you may be struggling to see how exactly you can go about translating your military skills to civilian employment.
The truth is that no matter how specific to military life your training was, your time in also instilled in you something we’ll call military soft skills. Don’t get the wrong idea: just because these skills are called soft doesn’t mean they aren’t vitally important. Soft skills are extremely valuable to employers and are some of the most sought after qualities interviewers look for in potential hires. They’re somewhat uncommon, hard to teach and very marketable.
These skills aren’t the specific, technical training skills you received for whatever assignment you had while in the service. Rather, they are the abilities you gained by working in a formally structured, disciplined environment with little room or tolerance for error. Military soft skills are ones that employers seek in candidates and have learned they can expect to find in veterans. Being aware of what soft skills you have and then playing up these skills on your resumes and cover letters (rather than expecting the employer to find them for you) can be the difference between getting hired after the military and considering reenlistment.
When I say communication here, I mean it in the plainest, non-technical sense. This doesn’t have anything to do with being able to work a radio. These communication skills are the kind you develop from just being able to effectively talk to the variety of people you encountered in the service. Depending on your rank and responsibilities, chances are you learned the right way to approach everyone from higher ranking officers to teammates and subordinates.
It might not sound so impressive to you, but employers definitely value people who can successfully navigate work-place politics to get things done. The hierarchy you’ll find in your new job most likely won’t be as structured as the military, but the skills you’ve learned will still be valuable. Sure, subordinates in the civilian world may not be quite as willing to follow orders as they were in the military, but hopefully you learned the best way to talk to those working for you so they’d be motivated to get the job done right.
Your communication skills will offer you an advantage over non-veterans also because of the way you’ve learned to speak to superiors. Many people enter the workforce with a natural aversion to doing what they’re told, but deference and respect for the chain of command is probably second nature to you by now. To many employers, that will be a breath of fresh air.
Depending on your responsibilities, there’s also a good chance you developed some excellent written communication skills as well during your time in the service. You learned how to write in a way your future bosses will appreciate. Clear, goal-oriented writing, with a focus on critical information is what employers want to read. If you learned to write like that and did so frequently, be sure to mention it on your resume.
As you must know by now, things don’t always go according to plan. Circumstances change. Orders change. Not enough of something arrives. Too much of something else arrives. You’ve probably had to—as they say in the Marines — “improvise, adapt and overcome” more times than you care to remember.
As much of a pain as these situations were at the time, the experience you’ve gained in getting past these scenarios is definitely something you want to play up on your resume. Unless you find work in a government agency, it’s unlikely that you’ll have to deal with the occasional mix-up sprawling bureaucracies tend to deliver. You’ll be more than qualified to handle logistical errors and communication breakdowns than the average employee. Not everyone can deal with these situations without getting very stressed out or just causing additional problems, but you’ve been trained to keep your cool.
Flexibility doesn’t just mean being able to accept that things won’t always go how you expect them to; it’s one of the military skills that refer to your ability to adjust to a situation on the fly. Forget things not going how you expect them to: sometimes you aren’t even told what to expect. The ability to flourish in a totally ambiguous environment is rare among civilians and common among veterans. Use it to your advantage.
Depending on the positions you’re applying for, there’s a chance you’ll be competing for a spot against some college graduates whose teamwork experience is limited to making a group PowerPoint presentation. This is one area where your military soft skills give you a clear advantage for sure. You want to talk about teamwork skills? How about having to collaborate with someone else for nearly every assigned task for the last several years? How about being a part of a team that requires every member to work effectively together in order to stay alive?
Even if you were never in such a high stress situation, the fact is there are few places outside of the military that develop teamwork skills like the military. All you have to do is look at the way the military is structured – units, battalions, etc. -- to get a sense of how intrinsic teamwork is to the makeup of the armed forces. Getting hired after the military will be a lot easier if you look for jobs that need workers capable of such teamwork. The good news is you’ll be hard pressed to find a position that doesn’t require some level of working together.
It’s probably second nature to you by now, but the skills of a good teammate — knowing when to take the lead and knowing when to follow — are not as commonplace as you might think. Those whose team experiences are limited to youth soccer teams are going to be prone to sitting back and hoping someone else does the work or taking charge when they don’t have any idea what they’re doing.
Integrity is a military soft skill you might overlook, but definitely matters to potential employers. Think of it this way: having a service record is the exact opposite of having a criminal record. Just by having it in your background, employers will assume you will be a trustworthy, hardworking employee who is willing to put others before his or herself.
Additionally, if you were granted any security clearances, then that will be further proof that you were trusted by superiors before and that you are worthy of such trust once again. By and large, employers can never really know for sure what they’re getting when they hire someone, but when they hire a veteran they can at least expect someone who will behave consistently within an honorable moral code.
This isn’t something that is only relevant when the building catches on fire and everyone looks to you to save the day. Integrity also comes in to play in everyday tasks as simple as showing up to work on time. It may not seem impressive to you, but having the discipline to come in every day when you’re supposed to, meet deadlines and do what you say you are going to do are all things employers dream all of their employees will do.
It may be difficult to find a way to fit this military skill into a resume, so try to keep it in mind during the interview process. Any assurances that you are never late and that you can get your work done on time automatically have a lot more weight to them when you’re a veteran, so be sure to throw a few out there at some point.
“Winging it” is rarely a good approach in the workplace, and fortunately for you, you’ve spent a significant amount of time in an environment where “winging it” is very much discouraged. The ability to create a plan is one that should not be brushed aside. Civilian leadership positions like managers and executives have to constantly create plans to stretch resources, make schedules and figure out where the best places to put the money are. The experience most vets have with creating these plans will be invaluable when a company wants to figure out things such as the best way to reach their goals in the coming year.
Being skilled at planning doesn’t just mean knowing how to make a plan and sticking with it. It also means knowing how to adjust the plan to unforeseen circumstances. The ability to plan well means recognizing when a plan isn’t working, not panicking when a plan has to be discarded and being able to think of a new, effective one on the spot. Planning under pressure and making new plans to correspond with a change in circumstances are much sought after skills that vets possess.
Problem Solving Skills
Problem solving skills can be used to do many different types of things. I’m not talking about the ability to solve a word problem in math class. I’m referring to the ability to identify the central conflict in a situation and calmly assess and implement a variety of solutions. As a veteran, you’ve been exposed to a broad range of problems in need of solving. You might have had to deal with the previously mentioned logistical headaches and gained a lot of experience solving bureaucratic issues like that.
You might have encountered tactical problems like terrain or weather issues and used your planning skills to help overcome those issues. Or you might have had to solve social problems among your subordinates or peers, the type of problem that you can certainly expect to find in the civilian world as well.
No matter what type of problem you had to face, try to remember some details about a few for interviews. Potential employers ask a common interview question – What is a significant challenge or problem you’ve faced and how did you solve it? – specifically to measure your problem solving skills. If you have a few of these kind of scenarios you’ve faced with exact details of what you did to solve the problem ready to go, you’ll crush those kinds of questions.
Though the above skills are applicable for all veterans, you might have been lucky enough to receive an assignment that makes translating military experience to civilian employment even easier. If you worked as a mechanic, in any sort of telecommunication position, financial management position or in health care, then you’ve been lucky enough to have been trained in skills that relate directly to corresponding civilian jobs. Military soft skills will work as an added bonus to the specific experience you’ll be able to list on your resume.
How to Translate Military Experience to a Resume
Whether you have applicable technical skills or just military soft skills, the key to finding a job will be in knowing how to present the skills you have to an employer. Don’t just make one resume and send it out to every place you think you’ll want to work. Instead, create a resume tailored to fit each specific job.
Take for example an E-9 Army infantryman who served for twenty-three years. On the surface, it might not look like he has too much to put on his resume. He learned to operate tanks, weapons and spent a decent chunk of his time doing manual labor. But, as noted above, he also gained a lot of soft skills in the military. His time spent training and evaluating personnel gave him good leadership and communication skills. He was also responsible for a massive inventory list and was in charge of some very expensive material assets. So from these responsibilities he learned flexibility, problem solving and how to cope with stress under pressure.
While all of these skills are valuable, it’s important to be particular when translating military experience to civilian employment in order to emphasize certain military skills depending on the job you are applying for. If you are seeking a position in human resources, then you should play up your interpersonal skills and make the focus of the resume your experience in effectively leading subordinates and all of the social conflicts you had to solve while doing so. If you are looking for a managerial position, you can still mention those skills, but should shift the focus to the logistical side of things and emphasize experience dealing with inventory. Show the employer exactly how well suited you are for the open position. Don’t leave it to them to try to figure out the possible different ways your experience might be relevant.
If you’re not sure if any of the technical skills you learned will be applicable to civilian life, check out this military to civilian occupation translator. You may be surprised to learn there is a corresponding position in the civilian world to whatever obscure job you had while serving that you thought would never look good on a resume. Rest assured: you’re a lot more employable than you might have thought.