A Guide for Veterans Transitioning to Civilian Careers

You’ve served your country and done it admirably. Now it’s time to move onto a new path in your career: One as a civilian.

Transitioning from military to civilian life is not easy. In recent years, veterans who enlisted after 9/11 have a slightly higher unemployment rate than the national average, and some feel intimidated by the unfamiliarity of the civilian professional world. Military life has its own language, its own code and its own culture, which are not widely understood among civilians. Even your resume may need to be overhauled to “de-militarize” it and emphasize skills that are more marketable in the civilian world.

That’s why it’s a good idea to plan out your transition ahead of time. Here’s a comprehensive look at the education paths and career options for veterans, including tips for applying to college as a veteran, researching careers, understanding education benefits for veterans and much more.

Remember, you have a huge advantage over others looking for jobs. You have the discipline and toughness instilled by a military background, and that will help you in this job market.

Education

For many veterans transitioning into civilian life, going back to school is the logical first step. There are many benefits to continuing your education, including:

  • Easing back into civilian life
  • Using G.I. bill benefits to pay for your education
  • Exploring a variety of different career fields
  • Earning a higher salary after graduation than those who don’t go to college
  • Moving to a new location for school

Still, it can be intimidating to start the college selection process. There are hundreds of schools, and you’ll want to find one that lines up with your career interests. Luckily, there are people who can help you with this. Seek out guidance from military career counselors or nonprofit groups, such as Student Veterans of America, which have experience helping former soldiers transition to college. Your local Veterans Affairs office will provide free educational and vocational counseling services to military personnel within one year of their discharge. You can also talk to one of our career counselors who specialize in helping military personnel further their education at Vista College.

Understanding Education Benefits for Veterans

Of course, a huge part of any veteran’s post-military benefits is the
G.I. Bill. Passed in 1944, the law provides, among many other things, cash assistance for veterans who want to attend post-secondary school. Currently, the law provides a monthly fee for former military attending college; the annual payout is capped at just over $19,000 for those attending private colleges. For public colleges, it covers all tuition and fees for an in-state student.

The money can be used to attend a university, a trade school, correspondence schools, on-the-job training or certification programs. Former military personnel also receive a $1,000 annual stipend to buy books. There is a time limit on G.I. Bill benefits. You must use them within 15 years of discharge from active duty. The bill provides for 36 months of full-time benefits. A monthly housing stipend is also paid out to post-military.

If you live in a rural area without access to a nearby school, you may also be eligible for a one-time relocation benefit from the government.

Can My Military Experience Earn Me College Credits?

A big question for any veteran is how to translate military training into college credits. Great news: Your tour of duty may get you a head start at college. Many institutions grant college credit for experience gained in the field during military duty. In fact, the average post-military student can earn at least three credits, saving some $600 on an entry-level class, based on the minimum training they received while in the service.

In order to see what credits you qualify for, you’ll need to obtain your transcript from your branch of the military detailing the training you received. They will send a copy to your college(s) of choice at no additional cost. Each service has a different way of tracking your training, but the American Council on Education has come up with a way to standardize them. ACE can recommend what credit you should receive for your training.

The college itself will decide how many credits to accept and how to apply them. For instance, they may give you a pass on physical education requirements because of basic training, and they could offer you language credit for learning Arabic in the service. Not every college will offer the same amount of credits, so it’s wise to apply to several schools and compare what they are willing to give you.

Finding the Best College

The best college for you may not be the best college for your best friend from high school or your buddy from training camp. College is a highly individualized experience, and where you go depends on what you want from it. For example, if you already know what field you want to pursue, you’d be wise to research colleges that excel in that field. But if you’re still casting around for a career path, a liberal arts education may be a better bet.

You should also take into account your personality and your experience as a veteran. Do you want to go to a traditional college campus, where there are kids partying and sporting events to go to? Though this can be a lot of fun, some veterans find that the antics of college kids seem juvenile and immature after they’ve served their country at home or abroad. You’ll be coming to college with a different vantage point than your classmates, and while this can help enrich any classroom, you also have to decide whether you want to be around younger students.

Conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, may also play a role in your college decision. In this case, a college with smaller classes or an online school may be a better fit, as you can get more personalized attention and won’t find yourself in a large classroom with too much buzz. Make sure to talk with a counselor at the school about your specific concerns as a military veteran before you apply. Seek out on-campus veterans groups to get an unbiased opinion about how veterans are treated and whether there’s a good support network to help you out.

Applying to College as a Veteran

The smartest thing you can do as you start the application process is contact someone in the admissions department at your school of choice before you begin. Each school is different. Some consider veterans, who often come in with enough credits from training to enter as a sophomore, transfer students. Others classify them as true freshman. Consulting with someone beforehand will ensure you’re applying to the right place.

Other tips for your college application:

  • Be straightforward about any effects left over from your military service, such as a disability or PTSD; this helps the college get you the services you need
  • Discuss your military service in your entrance essay; it will help you stand out
  • Submit a military transcript
  • Get a recommendation from your commanding officer or supervisor
  • Ask about extended deadlines; if you’ve been overseas, you may have missed the initial application deadline, but schools often make exceptions for veterans
  • If it’s been a while since you took the SAT or ACT, or if you’ve never taken them, talk to a counselor at the school about waiving the requirement, a not-uncommon practice for veterans

Tips for Successful College Study for Veterans

Once you’ve been accepted to and enrolled in a school, your job is not done. Now you move onto the hard work of actual learning. As a veteran, here are some tips you may want to consider as you navigate your schooling.

1. Start with just a few courses.

While it’s tempting to dive into a full load, you’re still transitioning to civilian life. You don’t want to overload yourself.

2. Find other veterans on campus.

It can make a world of difference to share your experiences with someone who has also gone from military to civilian life.

3. Seek out veterans organizations.

Whether it’s an on-campus support group or a VA assistance program or even a nonprofit, these services are there to help you. Don’t be too proud to take advantage of them.

4. Keep your eyes on the prize.

You’re going to school to prepare for your post-military career. You should do all you can to make your experience a success.

Careers

Not everyone chooses to go back to school after retiring from the military. Perhaps you already have a degree or you’ve known exactly what you wanted to do during civilian life before you joined the military. Now it’s time to make it happen.

Transitioning from military to civilian life will have challenges but also great rewards. You’ll find that the things you learned in the military, such as discipline and good communication skills, will be valued by employers. You may also find you need to learn a whole new vocabulary, since military slang isn’t generally understood by civilians.

Here are some helpful hints on how to navigate your post-military career path.

Writing a Great Resume

You can’t land a job without a terrific resume, and the one you used during your time in the military is going to need an overhaul. Military resumes are very different than civilian ones. You want to de-emphasize the specifics of your duties and instead focus on the skills you honed while in the service.

For example, say you joined the infantry and worked your way up to sergeant. Your resume should include details of how many men were under your command and how you developed interpersonal skills by dealing with all their personalities. You may want to note the value of the material assets under your leadership, because numbers always look impressive on resumes.

A great resume will be targeted at the job you’re applying for, so if you decide to apply for a job as a network administrator, highlight all the experience during your military career that could be applicable to a network administrator’s job. Customization is always smart when it comes to resumes; otherwise you risk being overlooked in the slush pile of applicants.

One final note: While your resume should not have a military feel to it, do not be afraid to emphasize your military experience. Being a veteran is not only a great honor, it’s also a great reason for why you should be hired. Veterans are valued for their precision, sense of duty and commitment. If a company decides not to hire you simply because of your service, you probably didn’t want to work there in the first place.

How to Find Job Opportunities

The list of places where you can find jobs is literally endless. From online job boards to listings from colleges to newspapers to trade magazines to word of mouth, you won’t have a hard time finding out about openings. There are also specific job sites for veterans transitioning to civilian work.

These days, a lot of networking is done online, so make sure to let people know you’re looking for a job. Mention it on Facebook, and get an account on LinkedIn, the business social networking site, if you don’t have one already. These may seem like purely social tools, but a surprising number of people find job leads on them. Some companies, such as Home Depot, even have job programs that specifically target veterans. Do research on the web to find programs like this that might be a good fit.

Job Interview Tips

Once you’ve begun sending out resumes, you’ll start to land interviews. It’s probably been years since you had a traditional job interview, if ever, so use these tips to get yourself ready:

  • Do a mock interview with a friend or someone at the VA center.
  • Don’t use military lingo when answering questions; it will just confuse the interviewer.
  • Avoid using crude or curse words, which are fine in infantry but not in an interview.
  • Wear a shirt and tie or a suit if you have one, no matter what level the position you’re interviewing for.
  • Emphasize the real-world knowledge you gained during your military time.

The Best Careers for Veterans

While every person has different strengths and different interests, there are a handful of careers that are good fits for military personnel no matter what their personalities. Here are a few of the best careers for veterans.

Software development is both lucrative and something many military personnel have experience with;

Training and development emphasizes the problem-solving skills that veterans develop in the service;

Ship engineer may be a great fit for someone coming out of the Navy;

Administrative services manager values the team building skills that many veterans perfected in the military;

Telecommunications equipment install or repair offers a chance to use the telecommunications and technical expertise built up in many different branches of the military;

And heavy and tractor trailer drivers would be ideal for someone who drove trucks or tanks in the service – it’s also an industry that’s in serious need of new hires right now.

How to Transition to a Civilian Job

If you’ve landed a job, congratulations. Next comes the most challenging part: Making the complete transition from military to civilian employment.

Veterans will find that civilian workplaces are very different than military ones. For one thing, communications tend to be much more indirect than in the military. Whereas a sergeant will bark out commands or chastise someone for failing to get something done, in the civilian workplace, interactions are rarely so cut-and-dry. Those with a military background can find the niceties of a civilian office frustrating. They may begin to wonder where they stand, since bosses are less straightforward in their criticism and praise.

It can also be confusing for military personnel used to answering to one person that the chain of command seems more circular and less clear. Three people may be in charge of one department, and they may all be pushing different visions. Understand that this is simply part of civilian office politics. In fact, sometimes companies can benefit from having so many hands stirring the pot; from a variety of opinions often comes better ideas.

Efficiency can also be a frustration for veterans who are used to having a decision be made and carrying it out immediately. There’s little waste in the military, whether it’s personnel or resources. In the civilian workplace, you may encounter people whose sole job seems to be to wander around the office complaining. Ignore your instinct to scream at them. You’ll get used to the inefficiency soon enough.

Finally, you will find that civilian jobs are much more flexible than anything you encountered in the military. You may be able to work from home, switch your hours from day to day and take off time to spend time with your family.

Enjoy these perks. They’re part of what you’ve earned after your long years of service.

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